Environment minister: EU must first fix own house

Denmark will use this week’s meeting of EU climate and environment ministers to help the union find a common sustainability policy ahead of key UN summit

Denmark's leading climate and environmental policy makers have their work cut out for them as they seek to bring the EU to consensus during meetings in Horsens later this week. 

The meeting of environment and energy ministers will be one of the last chances for the EU to come up with a policy that can be agreed on ahead of a key UN environmental sustainability conference in June.

With Denmark holding the rotating EU presidency until the end of June, it is the responsibility of the environment minister, Ida Auken, and the climate minister, Martin Lidegaard, to chair meetings behing held from Wednesday to Friday.

While the meetings are not expected to result in any decisions, the talks will still form the basis for setting European environmental and energy policy.

The first set of discussions relate to the seventh Environmental Action Plan (EAP) that is set to come into effect later this year and which, according to Auken, will focus heavily on energy and environmental sustainability.

“Firstly, we need to recycle and reuse our resources to a far greater extent. If we do so, we will also create thousands of new jobs,” Auken wrote in a press release. “Secondly, we have to make sure that leading the way with green production and sustainable products is a much better business option. The polluters must pay. Thirdly, we have to do even more to limit harmful chemicals.”

The future of Europe’s energy infrastructure will also be discussed, as decisions soon need to be made about how to replace a large portion of the EU's ageing electricity grid.

The European Commission’s plan, the Energy Roadmap 2050, foresees Europe limiting its carbon emissions by at least 80 percent in 2050, meaning heavy investments in renewable energy such as wind and solar will be needed to fill the gap left by oil and coal.

This vision sits well with a government that recently implemented lofty ambitions to phase out the use of fossil fuels entirely by 2050 and is an advocate of positioning the EU as a leader in renewable energy technology, a move it argues could create thousands of jobs across the continent.

Denmark's environmental visions are not shared by all, however, and coal-dependent Poland has made serious objections to proposals that would increase the EU's commitment to cutting carbon emissions by 20 percent of 1990 levels by 2020, to 30 percent.

The EU's carbon reduction plans may be jeopardised by a poor outcome to the EU's complex Energy Efficiency Directive. The directive, which is currently being negotiated, needs to secure a commitment to improve energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2020 in order for Europe to reach its carbon reduction targets.

Despite Denmark already watering down the directive in order to help it pass, the outcome is far from certain.

"I would like to appeal to my colleagues to show a good degree of flexibility so that we can adopt the directive. Flexibility is required of member states and the European Parliament," Lidegaard wrote in a press release.

The final topic of discussions of European ministers this week will be the EU’s position at June's Rio+20 Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro. 

At the conference, thousands of people – including world leaders, lawmakers, and representatives from the private sector and NGOs – will discuss ambitions for creating a more sustainable and green global economy.

During a press conference last Friday, Auken said this week's talks in Horsens can help ensure that the EU goes to the conference as a united front.

“If we are to come to Rio and act as leaders to rest of the world we have to fix our own house,” Auken said. “[These] discussions will be important for how or whether we can succeed by demonstrating to the rest of the world that [the EU] is ready to move toward an inclusive green economy.”

But with the current difficulties facing the energy efficiency directive, Poland’s stubbornness to cutting carbon emissions, as well as opposition to the EU’s carbon tax placed on the airline industry by countries such as China and India, a lot of fixing is needed before the EU's house in order.