Implementing environment legislation
Legislation on the statute book counts for little if it is not properly implemented and enforced. The EU has agreed an array of environment measures over the past 40 years, but the way these are applied can be patchy. To remedy this, the Commission is proposing to help Member States improve their implementation record.
Since the 1970s, the EU has agreed some 200 pieces of legislation to protect our environment. These range from waste water treatment and nature protection to measures to improve air quality and ensure the public’s right to information. With the exception of soil, the EU’s environment is well covered by legislation. The challenge now is not so much to devise new legislation, but rather to implement effectively what has been agreed.
These measures are popular with Europe’s citizens. Recent polls have found that individuals consider a healthy environment to be as important to their quality of life as the state of the economy and social factors.
Failure to implement legislation in a timely and correct manner can have many adverse consequences. The environment and human health can be harmed. Industry is confronted with regulatory uncertainty. Agreed standards are applied unevenly across the Union. The cost of not implementing existing environmental legislation is estimated at some EUR 50 billion a year. Proper implementation can bring financial benefits. It is calculated that if EU waste legislation is fully implemented it would generate 400 000 jobs and involve annual net costs EUR 72 billion lower than in a non-implementation scenario.
To tackle this challenge the Commission has proposed ways to help Member States with effective implementation. It identified two themes: the need for better knowledge of the state of the environment and appropriate responsiveness in the ways problems are dealt with (see also separate article on access to justice).
Improving the knowledge base
The ideas are contained in the communication the Commission issued in March, Improving the delivery of benefits from EU environmental measures: building confidence through better knowledge and responsiveness.
They are intended to ensure sufficient underpinning of legislation agreed at European level and to provide Member States with better implementation tools. After various EU institutions and other interested parties have given their views on the package, the results of that consultation will be fed into the 7th Environmental Action Programme.
More complete information is needed on the way Member States deliver their EU commitments in practice. The Commission believes there is considerable scope for improving the organisation and dissemination of information by using the new technological and e-Government tools available.
It is recommending close collaboration nationally between different professional groups such as environmental scientists, statisticians, ICT experts and administrators to provide information that is scientifically and legally robust and meaningful to the general public, experts and policy makers.
Member States are being encouraged to develop structured implementation and information frameworks (SIIFs) for all key EU environment legislation. These would identify the type of easily accessible information needed to demonstrate the legislation is being properly implemented. These frameworks would form part of a wider effort to establish effective environmental information systems under SEIS (Shared Environmental Information System), a rolling Commission initiative launched in 2008.
A possible model is the Commission’s annual bathing water quality report covering over 21 000 locations in Europe. An Internet site allows users to download data and check interactive maps down to the level of individual beaches. The European Environment Agency is now doing pilot exercises on air quality and waste. Thought is also being given to using satellites and earth observation techniques to monitor implementation on the ground.
Implementing environmental legislation is complex. Many different tasks are undertaken by groups such as national inspectors, prosecutors, courts, auditors, NGOs and ordinary citizens exercising their participatory rights.
While minimum inspection criteria exist for industrial facilities, these are less developed for activities that impact on the environment such as groundwater abstraction and trade in protected species. This could be addressed by extending criteria used to undertake inspections and surveillance.
One particular gap is the absence of any general framework for the response by national authorities to demands they intervene in a particular situation or to complaints of administrative inaction or inadequacy. Although the right to bring environmental complaints to the Commission exists, it considers improvements could be put in place nationally.
This could be achieved through agreed criteria on the procedures to be followed and the possibility for a complainant, if dissatisfied with the response received, to be able to refer the matter to an independent national review body, such as an ombudsman.
The Commission sees great benefits in the use of networks that bring together, nationally and at European level, people with a professional role in implementation, such as administrators, environmental lawyers, inspectors, prosecutors, judges and environment agencies. Despite several initiatives, there is a strong feeling the full potential of networks has yet to be reached.