Commission tries again for credible sustainability strategy

A promise to set clearer targets and deadlines in the EU's revised sustainable development strategy was made by the European Commission in February.1

The commitment came in a paper setting out general conclusions on last summer's consultation (ENDS Report 355, pp 57-58 ) which began a review of the EU's first sustainable development strategy, launched in 2001. Formal proposals for the revised strategy are expected this autumn.

The strategy's effectiveness was questioned from all sides in responses to last year's consultation. Summarising their views, the Commission says that many respondents emphasised that the strategy had not been properly implemented.

"The strategy is also criticised - including by national governments - for being too vague, lacking a real operational definition and for not containing sufficiently specific objectives, targets and deadlines," according to the summary. A "majority" also complained that EU policy-making remains too sectoral and is not conducive to promoting sustainability.

The Commission acknowledges that all the unsustainable trends identified in 2001 - in greenhouse gas emissions, resource consumption, biodiversity damage and transport growth - "have yet to start to reverse".

Its rhetoric is, as always, urgent. Anticipating "enormous and increasing pressure on the world's resources" in the coming decades, it sees a need for "co-ordinated action and strong leadership" from the EU, and a "push to accelerate the rate of change".

The Commission also believes that the revised strategy "will need to adopt a broader approach highlighting the structural changes in the economy needed to move towards more sustainable production and consumption patterns."

The paper goes on to outline some "future orientations" for the revised strategy - though these are couched in very general terms for now.

The Commission acknowledges the need for "clearer objectives, targets and related deadlines", but also for intermediate targets to act as a stronger driver than the medium-term objectives set in 2001. So the revised strategy will contain new headline objectives for each of the unsustainable trends, together with intermediate milestones.

The paper also promises an improved system for reporting progress to the spring European Council. It had been hoped that heads of state and government would give the strategy an annual kick at these meetings, but the reporting and stocktaking process has been ill-focused and ineffectual.

Elsewhere the Commission seems to be offering more of the same, including continued promotion of economic instruments and of ways of stimulating "eco-innovations" - for instance, through public procurement. It also contends that pushing through the "better regulation" agenda, using tools such as impact assessment and regulatory simplification, will help place sustainable development "at the core of EU policy-making" - a connection which may not be obvious to everyone.

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