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Environment policy

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Environmental policy is one of the areas covered by EU legislation. Up to 80% of UK legislation on environmental affairs is estimated to come from the EU. The EU has passed legislation aimed at improving the quality of water, tackling air and noise pollution, assuring the safety of chemicals, setting standards for waste disposal and protecting the EU’s wildlife and plants. For example, the EU endorsed energy efficient light bulbs by banning 100W incandescent light bulbs in 2009. The EU has agreed that at least 20% of its budget for 2014-2020, as much as €180 billion, should be spent on climate change-related action.

Critics have questioned the efficiency of some measures, arguing that the cost of complying with these regulations leaves European business uncompetitive, especially because of increased competition from countries such as China and India, which do not have such strict environmental rules.

Environmental policy is a relatively recent EU policy area. The first of a series of European Environmental Action Plans (EAPs) was not launched until 1972. In 1986 the Single European Act marked a more prominent role for environmental protection in EU policy-making, introducing the principle that it should be considered in all new EU legislation. EU environmental policy was further expanded in the Treaty of Maastricht (1992), the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) and the Lisbon Treaty (2007), making sustainable development one of the EU’s central objectives.

What does EU Environmental Policy do?

The current EAP, which runs until 2020, identifies three key objectives; to protect and enhance the EU’s natural capital, to turn the EU into an efficient, green, and competitive low-carbon economy and to safeguard the EU’s citizens from environmental risks to health and wellbeing. It also contains objectives to make cities more environmentally friendly and to address climate change.

The 2008 EU climate change package established the ‘20:20:20 targets’ for 20% of energy to come from renewable sources and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20% by 2020. 24 EU countries are on track to meet their binding targets, which are set depending on a country’s wealth. Only Luxembourg, Ireland, Belgium and Austria are not on target. The EU supported the Kyoto protocol in 1997, which was the first major international agreement to cut emissions, and supported the first universal climate deal agreed in Paris in 2015. In 2014, the EU also adopted a climate and energy framework which sets three binding targets for the year 2030, including reducing emissions by 40%. It has yet to agree how targets will be enforced.

The EU emissions trading system (ETS) is an EU environmental policy. It works by having a limit on the total amount of certain greenhouse gases that can be emitted by the factories, power plants and other polluters included in the system. Those in the ETS are responsible for 45% of EU greenhouse gas emissions. The limit is reduced over time so that emissions fall. By 2020, emissions from those in the ETS will be 21% lower than in 2005. By 2030, the European Commission proposes they should be 43% lower.

Within the limit, companies can receive or buy emission allowances. They can trade with each other if they have extra or need more. Each year a company must not produce more emissions than they have allowances for, otherwise they are fined. If a company has spare allowances they sell them to another company or keep them for the next year. This approach means that companies that can afford to cut emissions so they can increase profits. Companies can also buy international credits, allowing them to increase their emissions in return for investment in clean technologies and low-carbon solutions, particularly in developing countries.