Thank you Giovanni.

Honourable members.

You may remember that in my hearing before this institution, in September 2014, I stated that I would make the 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP) my guiding framework. The 7th EAP asks the Commission to take action on a broad range of issues; I am following this closely and am happy to say that work is well underway on the nine priority objectives of the Programme.

We must always remember, that achieving its 2050 vision of “living well, within the limits of our planet” is a joint responsibility, depending on efforts from the Member States and from the Parliament too. 

And I must say that I have enjoyed excellent working relationships with many of you individually, and with this institution, in the last year on many files.

The 7th EAP can make a significant contribution to President Juncker's 10 priorities. To do so, I am focusing in particular on (1) greening the economy, (2) better connecting with citizens and (3) "making it happen".

I will address these three areas in turn, but let me first reflect on two very significant developments in the second half of 2015:

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development together with the international agreement on climate change at COP 21 in Paris constitute major milestones in the global quest for greater sustainability.

The EU played a leading role in achieving such an ambitious result in negotiations for the 2030 Agenda, and we remain determined to continue playing a leading role in the implementation and monitoring of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. As you know we foresee in the Commission Work Programme for 2016 an initiative for next steps for a sustainable European future that links implementation of the SDGs with the Europe 2020 review to ensure economic growth and social and environmental sustainability.

We will work in two steps. Later this year we will put forward a Communication that maps out the internal and external policies implementing the SDGs and related initiatives, such as the review of the European Consensus for Development or work done by Eurostat on monitoring of sustainable development.

Building on this work, we will turn towards the preparation of a "post-2020" strategy for Europe. We are keen to make this process as inclusive as possible, not only mobilising the whole Commission's expertise, but also drawing on your experiences, and those of stakeholders.

First guidance for this process in the form of options should be discussed with my colleagues in the College of Commissioners in July 2016. 

Ensuring that our economic activities are sustainable is a prerequisite not only for meeting the SDGs; it is a necessity to enable the EU to confront long-term challenges. It makes sense for Europe, which is poor in natural resources, but rich in skills and knowledge, to get the maximum added value out of every kilo of materials, and every joule of energy, then to keep that value in the economy for as long as possible.

That is why my first priority is to significantly step up the promotion of green growth in the EU.

The EU is already a global leader in this area, but the potential for further improvement is enormous. The latest figures in our Resource Efficiency Scoreboard show that resource productivity has steadily improved over the past decade, and we see trends towards a more sustainable direction, but we still have a long way to go to decouple resource use from economic growth.

Green growth under the Europe 2020 Strategy means reducing both material costs and environmental harm, through more efficient use of resources and innovation, thus contributing to growth, competitiveness and job creation.

We delivered on our Work Programme commitment, last December, by adopting a new strategy for a Circular Economy. If fully implemented, this will bring about a triple win-situation to society through savings for EU businesses, job creation and a reduction of environmental pressures including carbon emissions. The focus is now on preparing the different elements foreseen in the package.

Implementation of the Action Plan is on track. Last year, we launched targeted calls in the Horizon2020 programme for "Industry 2020 in the Circular Economy", and the Commission adopted its proposal for online sales of goods.

And one month ago (17 March) we presented a revised Fertilisers Regulation, including measures to improve the market access of organic and bio-waste-based fertilisers in the EU.

Now we are preparing the new Eco-design Work Plan, looking into addressing energy efficiency in products but also reparability, durability, upgradability, and recyclability .

To keep track of its implementation, the package foresees a progress report 5 years after its adoption. However, more regular updates to Member States, the European Parliament and Stakeholders are under discussion.

Discussions on the legislative proposals on waste have got off to a good start. Reactions of the Member States in the Council Working Group have so far been positive. I look forward to engaging with you actively on this, starting with the draft report of the rapporteur - Simona Bonafè - to be presented in May and the adoption of the report in this Committee in November. I know that my team in the Commission is already explaining the proposals and preparatory meetings have already taken place with Simona and her staff, as well as with the shadow rapporteurs. We offer our full cooperation and technical advice in the coming months.

Marine litter is an issue that is particularly close to my heart. We need an approach that deals with this on land and at sea. There are many good initiatives already happening, beach clean ups, fishing for waste, research, and policy initiatives such as our action to reduce single use plastic bags. But I see a need to coordinate these and focus them where they are most effective.

As you know, waste is just one part of the circle, and to achieve the more fundamental transformation of our economies will require significant and targeted investment. So let me also mention that this year's Green Week from the end of May, will be dedicated to the theme of "Investing for a Greener Future". We must ensure that the financial system caters for sustainable development and helps us in achieving the commitments made last year in Paris on climate, in New York on the 2030 Agenda, as well as on the Circular Economy Action Plan. I am glad to see that the Parliament is proactively involved in the Green Week Programme. I would be delighted to see as many of you there as possible.

Biodiversity is a resource in itself. Although not always the most visible, natural capital and the ecosystem services it provides such as clean water, pollination and the agricultural productivity from good quality soils, underpin our economy and our society and are a precondition for any lasting growth, social cohesion and well-being. 

If we don’t manage our ecosystems properly then we lose these resources, and it costs a lot of money and time to replace them with artificial solutions. Protecting and enhancing our natural capital is not a cost, it is saving costs; it is an investment in a more sustainable future.

The Commission's mid-term review of the EU biodiversity strategy, the subsequent Council Conclusions and the report from the European Parliament all send a consistent message about the critical importance of strengthening our efforts to reach the 2020 EU biodiversity targets.

But four years from that date, we cannot be sure that we will achieve them.

Better policy coherence will be essential. Sectors such as agriculture and forestry which together cover 80% of the EU territory are at the heart of the solution to halting biodiversity loss.

It is sometimes said that what you can’t measure won’t happen, and we need to better account for nature's value, make it more visible and better understood, to integrate it into planning and decision-making throughout the EU.

An important concrete step in tackling one of the main causes of biodiversity loss in the EU was the adoption of the EU Invasive Alien Species Regulation. As you know, the Commission wasted no time in developing the first list of species of Union concern, in fact I know that many of you believe that we went too quickly! We are already carrying out preparatory work so that we can update the list this later this year. 

Later this year we will present the follow-up to the Fitness Check of EU Nature legislation. As you might have seen, this generated a record level of interest and engagement amongst citizens and stakeholders. The consultation received more responses than the one on TTIP, demonstrating that nature really matters to people.

The decision to carry out a Fitness Check of the two nature Directives recognises that these pieces of legislation have been in place for a number of years and that it is time to check if they are working, and if we could do better.

The Fitness Check will help us to understand what is working, what is not working and why.

We are now in the final stages of the Fitness Check, and I will present the results at a conference on nature in Europe, organised by the Netherlands at the end of its Presidency. Later in 2016, the Commission intends to propose concrete action to follow up on the Fitness Check, as we stated in the Commission Work Programme 2016.

So today I’m afraid I cannot announce the Commission conclusions of the fitness check; the exercise is not yet finalised. But let me be clear; I do not intend to propose any lowering of the objectives of this legislation, which is the centre‑piece of EU environment policy.

We are not only working to conserve species and habitats within the EU. Worldwide, we are witnessing a dramatic increase in wildlife trafficking. The figures are shocking: over 20,000 African elephants were poached in 2013 alone, while 1,338 rhinoceros were killed last year.

Wildlife trafficking is not only destroying beautiful animals and endangering species, it is also funding crime and depriving poor communities in developing countries of their livelihoods. Not to mention the human tragedy, as an increasing number of park rangers are killed trying to protect species targeted by poachers.

The Commission responded on 26 February with a comprehensive and solid EU Action Plan against wildlife trafficking. This is an important milestone, and it responds to a clear call by the European Parliament for Europe to do more on this issue. The first reactions of Member States to this initiative are positive and we expect that the Environment Council will endorse this Action Plan at its June meeting. I look forward to reading this Committee's report on it.

The Action Plan contains a large number of commitments. They are all important, and it is critical that they are all implemented within the envisaged time lines so that we can see progress on the ground. We have started working on this, and we will engage with Member States to discuss how best to take forward implementation. The next important event is the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Convention in September. We count on your support, which is critical to make sure that the EU leads efforts to halt wildlife trafficking at the international and domestic levels.

Aside from being an intrinsic part of ensuring a sustainable economy in the long run, environmental policies as such are important to our citizens; they touch upon many aspects of people's daily lives.

In my audition in front of you to become Commissioner, I also explicitly set out as my priority to safeguard the Union's citizens from environment- related pressures and risks to health

A healthy environment is crucial for the health and well‑being of citizens and EU environmental legislation has played an instrumental role in delivering improvements on the ground. Today, over 99% of the drinking water supplied in the EU is safe thanks to continuously improving implementation of the EU Directive on the quality of drinking water.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the quality of the air most people breathe in the EU. The Commission's Clean Air Quality package is intended to drastically reduce the number of premature deaths due to air pollution in Europe, and to drastically reduce respiratory diseases, while delivering savings up to €140 billion in health care costs by 2030. I appreciate the great work of Julie Girling and the shadow rapporteurs in trying to come to a first reading conclusion on the National Emissions Ceilings Directive. If we can achieve a result that at least halves the number of premature deaths due to bad air quality, we will demonstrate just how effective we can be in delivering environmental and health benefits to European citizens.

Ratification of the Minamata Convention on mercury will also deliver clear environmental and health benefits:

  • By triggering a dramatic drop of mercury emissions to air worldwide, leading to reduced exposure to mercury worldwide and within the EU;
  • By putting a halt to global manufacturing and trade of most existing mercury containing products;
  • and by banning any new use of mercury in products and industry within the EU, unless it is really essential for the protection of health and the environment.  

What the Commission proposed at the beginning of February will mean that the EU continues leading the way on global mercury policy. It is now important that we can ratify the Convention before its entry into force, at the latest in early 2017. This will require rapid work by the co-legislators and we are fully available to support this endeavour.

Beyond mercury, citizens are concerned about chemicals in the light of their potential impacts on health and the environment. The 2017 REACH review and the 2017 fitness check of all chemicals legislation will provide a lot of input for the 2018 Strategy for a non-toxic environment called for in the 7th EAP.

I intend to demonstrate that the focus on creating growth and jobs does not compromise on environmental protection for current or future generations of EU citizens. They have to go hand-in-hand.

All of these benefits – sustainable growth, improved health and wellbeing, and reduced risks, will only actually happen if the policies and legislation that we develop and adopt are implemented properly on the ground. 

My focus on "Making it happen" means addressing the implementation gap in EU environment legislation and ensuring that third countries take ambitious action too. It is also about ensuring that the tools we have in place to reach our objectives are up to date and fit for purpose.

We take this seriously. We have already carried out evaluations of several pieces of environmental legislation, with several others ongoing.

I have already mentioned the Nature Fitness Check; another important evaluation underway is of a more transversal nature, relating to environmental reporting. The aim is to make reports clearer, timelier and easier to prepare – this should translate into better results on the ground and less administrative burdens for business. Our stakeholder consultation has already thrown up many positive ideas. We are looking forward to delivering the results in 2017.

It is the Commission’s task to oversee the correct implementation of EU policy and legislation, and we will not hesitate to use the enforcement powers conferred by the Treaties, by pursuing infringements when necessary. But of course, it is far better not to arrive at the need for infringements.

One complementary solution is to track progress and step up problem-solving with the Member States in delivering existing and new commitments. That is why we are developing an Environmental Implementation Review (or EIR in short).  The EIR will give a comprehensive, strategic overview of Member States' performance enabling an informed dialogue and finding efficient solutions, preferably before a breach of EU law occurs.

This Review will aim:…

  • to improve our shared knowledge about existing implementation gaps in EU environmental policy and law in each Member State;
  • to provide new solutions in addition and complementary to legal enforcement;
  • to address the underlying root causes of these gaps;
  • and to stimulate exchanges of good practices. 

As a first step, country reports will prepare the ground for bilateral country dialogues between the Commission and the Member States concerned. These will enable high level discussions on any significant implementation gaps common to several Member States.

The idea behind the EIR is not new. Similar overviews have existed for many years in other policy fields such as the Single Market, digital economy, SMEs, taxation, consumer protection, and have a proven successful track record.

Before the end of 2016, the Commission also intends to deliver an initiative on access to justice. This will take the form of an Interpretative Guidance on the rulings that the Court of Justice of the European Union has already handed down on this important topic. The Guidance will help Member States, national courts and citizens as well as environmental NGOs to deal better with legal challenges.

A better environment in Europe cannot be achieved via action in the EU alone. We need third countries to take action to move to more circular economic models, to adopt high environment standards, to join us in fighting wildlife trafficking or protecting  forests as biodiversity hubs and carbon sinks,  to mention just a few key areas.

I am committed to stepping up environmental dialogues with key partner countries and international organisations. This year there will be to important opportunities to do this, in the UNEA 2 and the Conferences of the Parties of the Conventions on Biodiversity and Trade in Endangered Species. But I want to do more and make sure in particular that we actively promote resource efficiency and the circular economy through the G7 and bilateral outreach.

One specific word on the Arctic: Safeguarding its environment remains one of the priorities of the EU's Arctic policy. The Commission's forthcoming Arctic Communication will emphasise the importance of sustainable development in the region. Once adopted, it will need to be translated into concrete actions. I count on your active engagement and support.

I look forward to continuing to working with you for healthy people and a healthy planet. The strategic framework is well established, and now we must focus on implementing the actions we have agreed to – both internationally and at EU level.

This means incorporating the SDGs into our internal and external policies, realising the Circular Economy package and achieving the goals of the 7th Environment Action Programme.

In 2050, I want our children and grandchildren to live in a world with clean air and clean water; with food on their plate that they know is good for them; with products that are safe to use and energy that is clean; a world with abundant and diverse nature, from which we have learnt not to waste anything. There is a lot of hard work ahead of us, but I believe that we can “live well, within the limits of our planet”.

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