LIFE reaches 20 and prepares to move ahead


LIFE – the EU’s main source of co-financing environmental projects and programmes within the Union and further afield – celebrates its 20th birthday this year. As it commemorates this landmark, highlighting the people and projects that have contributed to its success, it is already looking to the future.

Birth and christening

Former Dutch MEP Hemmo Muntingh is widely considered to be LIFE’s ‘father’. Director of the Dutch Society for the Preservation of the Wadden Sea before entering the European Parliament, he used the EU’s annual budget procedure to propose financing for an Environment Fund. EU governments killed off his initial attempt in 1989, but he was successful the following year when a modest EUR 31 million was allocated to the new policy. The name LIFE comes from its French acronym: L’Instrument financier pour l’environnement (Financial Instrument for the Environment). It was coined by French MEP Alain Lamassoure, who prepared the Parliament’s position during the 1990 budget negotiations and played a major role in establishing the programme.

Just two decades ago, LIFE began its fledgling existence by helping, with limited finances, to establish an embryonic Natura 2000 network in the then 12 EU Member States. Since that time it has expanded its activities and operations throughout the 27-member Union, strengthening its focus on nature conservation and environmental protection and tackling challenges such as biodiversity decline, habitat loss, resource efficiency and climate action.

Through practical actions, innovation and the spread of best practice, LIFE projects have been a positive force for change in the way policy makers, stakeholders and the public think and act on the environment.

LIFE Environment Policy and Governance, one of the main components of the funding programme, helps finance innovative or pilot projects that develop new environmental technologies and methods. Over the past 20 years, in the EU it has assisted 1 940 projects to the tune of EUR 1.2 billion, and a further 230 projects in neighbouring countries outside the Union. A large number of these projects have been in the water and waste sectors, supporting implementation of EU policies in these areas.

Other LIFE Environment projects aim to reduce the impact of goods and services on the environment, to encourage the design of eco-products, to promote resource efficiency and to improve the urban environment and quality of life. Now a widespread phenomenon across Europe, the concept of carfree days first originated in a LIFE project run in France.

LIFE has helped demonstrate many diverse and innovative approaches to tackling climate change, supporting the development of specific mitigation and adaptation measures which are aiding the EU to meet its overall goal of a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

A similarly important contribution has been made by LIFE Nature and Biodiversity, where 1 256 projects have been cofinanced with EUR 1.2 billion (see separate article in this issue). Another set of projects, LIFE Information and Communication, focus on information dissemination and raising awareness on environmental issues.

Working together

One of the key factors in the success of LIFE projects is the close partnership between the different participants on the ground – coordinators, team members and local activists and politicians – and Commission officials. The programme does not simply involve the disbursement of money, but also practical assistance during the project and beyond.

The well-developed support process involves close examination of the original proposal, adapting it if necessary, and providing help and guidance to ensure not only that the projects’ objectives are fully achieved but also that the EU’s strict financial rules are respected. Progress is carefully monitored and projects are visited and evaluated annually.

Next steps

Negotiations are now taking place between the main EU institutions on the next phase of LIFE’s development from 2014 onwards, as it continues to help implement EU environmental legislation and disseminate the lessons learnt from the many projects it funds.

While the programme’s traditional activities will continue, special emphasis will be placed on a more holistic, integrated approach in the areas of nature conservation, water, waste, air and climate adaptation and mitigation. These new ‘integrated’ projects will have a more comprehensive impact, and will be notable for the manner in which they leverage sources of finance from other EU Funds.

Even when the EU funding comes to an end, Commission interest in a project remains. It provides advice on how the initiative can continue and where alternative finance might be found. It also visits a sample of projects three to five years after its direct involvement has ended to determine the lasting improvements that have been made.

That close contact and personal touch is graphically illustrated in ‘The Voices of LIFE: 20 years of getting things done’, a special publication produced for the 20th anniversary, with individual testimonies from scores of people involved with projects on the ground.

The anniversary landmark was also acknowledged by over 300 events during May – the original legislation became law on 21 May 1992 – organised by past and present LIFE projects. Two special competitions were organised to find the best project photographs and texts. In addition, a ‘LIFE at 20’ toolkit was produced to help everyone involved in LIFE projects to promote their individual initiatives and the current programme, which runs until 2013.


Funding and LIFE