Environment strategy tough to put into action

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Series Details Vol.7, No.26, 28.6.01, p17
Publication Date 28/06/2001
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Date: 28/06/01

By Simon Coss

WHEN it comes to pushing forward EU environmental policy, the Belgian government is likely to have its work cut out over the next six months.

The outgoing Swedish presidency may have succeeded in persuading EU governments to agree to a number of tough new green initiatives but the Belgians have the much more difficult task of convincing them to turn these eco-friendly intentions into concrete action.

Premier Guy Verhofstadt insists that environmental issues will be one of his country's "main concerns" during its term at the Union helm.

But no one is underestimating the size of the job ahead. Many analysts say the Belgians look set for a particularly bumpy ride over the issue of 'sustainable development', or promoting strong economic growth while respecting the environment.

EU leaders at this month's Göteborg summit approved a tough European Commission strategy on the subject, but an increasing number of experts predict the plan will prove very difficult to put into practice.

The Commission argues that for the strategy to work all 15 Union member states must ratify the 1997 Kyoto climate change agreement. So far none has done so.

And in the wake of President Bush's announcement that the US intends to scrap Kyoto, it could prove difficult to keep Union governments in-line.

After the initial howls of indignation at Bush's controverisal decision have died down, governments may begin questioning the logic of moving ahead on Kyoto without Washington.

Even before the US withdrawal many environmental experts said a global climate change deal without the Americans would not be worthwhile.

The country is the world's single-greatest producer of greenhouse gas emissions and if it doesn't make efforts to clean up its act, any action taken by other governments can only have a limited effect on the problem of global warming.

Ratifying the deal would oblige governments to pass tough laws that could affect the competitiveness of national firms without doing much to reduce greenhouse gas emissions world-wide. Such dark predictions of a Kyoto breakdown will come as no surprise to anybody who remembers the heated negotiations between Union countries that preceded the signing of the agreement. It took months of wrangling between member states to agree on the 'burden sharing' accord that allowed negotiators to jet off to Japan and speak with one voice on behalf of the EU.

But that deal, which set out the greenhouse gas cuts each country should make to reach the Union's overall Kyoto target, was based on the assumption that Washington would sign up.

According to a recent report by the Brussels-based think-tank the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), trying to persuade the Union to keep backing the environmental initiative will be "the biggest task" for the Belgian presidency.

Belgium's ambassador to the EU, Frans Van Daele, confirmed this view, in albeit less cataclysmic terms, when he spoke to a recent meeting at the European Policy Centre earlier this month.

The ambassador said the Kyoto protocol would "need nurturing" over the coming months."Having agreed to disagree with the US it is important to keep other countries on board," he added.

It may or may not come as a consolation to the Belgians that the Commission is likely to support them wholeheartedly in any efforts to push for a quick ratification of Kyoto by all of the Union's governments.

Earlier this month the institution unveiled a detailed report in which it argued that the EU could relatively easily reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by almost double the target set out for it in the Kyoto agreement.

Member states, the Commission said, simply need to put into place a number of policies that are either almost ready for adoption or are in the pipeline.

Article forms part of a survey on the Belgian EU Presidency, July-December 2001.

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