Ministers agree on VOCs in paints, but stall on climate change

Ministers failed to make progress on major elements of the EU's climate policy at the Environment Council in Luxembourg on 27 October. However, they agreed a new Directive setting limits on volatile organic compounds in paints and also agreed to beef up the European Commission's recent communication on integrated product policy.

The main items on the agenda are described below. Over lunch, Ministers also debated the controversial proposals to revise the EU's chemicals policy (see pp 51-53 ).

  • VOCs from decorative paints: The Council reached political agreement on a Directive to set maximum limits on organic solvents in paints and varnishes. The deal is close to the European Parliament's position on first reading, suggesting that the Directive should have a smooth path.

    The Directive will for the first time set limits on organic solvents in paints. The limit values are virtually identical to those in the European Commission's original proposal, with a slight weakening of the standards for interior and exterior trim paints and varnishes. They will come into force in 2007, with tighter limits following for some products in 2010.

    Agreement was reached after considerable haggling. Greece is particularly concerned about the impact on small paint manufacturers and abstained from the agreement. Other Member States were reassured by a new review clause which requires the Commission to assess any new information on the socio-economic impact of the second-stage VOC limits in a report due in 2008.

    The other main bone of contention was Belgium's request to radically extend the Directive's scope to include other solvent-containing products. This was withdrawn, but the Directive requires the Commission to review the limits, and the scope for including further products, by the end of 2008.

  • Climate strategy: The meeting exposed several fault-lines in EU climate policy. The two main areas of debate concerned the EU's position for the ninth Conference of the Parties (COP-9) to the Kyoto Protocol, which will be held in Milan in mid-December. A key thread was how best to persuade Russia to ratify the Protocol, so bringing it into force.

    The first issue concerned the so-called "linking" Directive, which would allow greenhouse gas reduction credits from the Protocol's project mechanisms to be used in the EU emissions trading scheme (ENDS Report 344, pp 29-34 ).

    The Italian Presidency insisted that the draft resolution should state that companies in the EU should be able to use credits to meet their emission targets from 2005, rather than 2008 as proposed by the Commission.

    Along with Denmark, Sweden and Luxembourg, Italy argued that early linking would reduce compliance costs in the EU and also help to lure Russia into ratification. At one stage, the Presidency even suggested that Russia may be able to participate in projects without signing up to the Protocol.

    Ministers also failed to agree over the Commission's proposal for a ceiling on the use of credits - an attempt to protect the principle that credits from overseas should be "supplemental" to domestic action.

    In the end, discussions on the linking Directive were deferred. Early agreement now seems unlikely, especially as the European Parliament is expected to given the proposal a rough ride.

    The meeting also failed to agree on the EU position for COP-9. Draft text urging "rapid ratification" of the Protocol by Russia was softened to avoid sending out "unfortunate and counter-productive political messages". Ministers also failed to agree on a call for a specific framework for combating climate change after 2012, or to resolve a dispute over how much each Member State should contribute towards a promised $410 million fund for "climate change activities" in developing countries.

    The outstanding issues will be dealt with at an extraordinary Council meeting immediately before COP-9.

  • Integrated product policy: Ministers called on the Commission to beef up its White Paper on integrated product policy, which was issued in July. The declaration will be a boost for the Environment Directorate, which was forced to drop many of its original ideas (ENDS Report 342, pp 28-31 ).

    The Council restated a call - first made in 2001 - for the IPP approach to be extended to services, and particularly tourism. The Commission had shied away from this, fearing it could introduce too much complexity.

    Ministers also called for a more detailed timetable for implementing the White Paper's initiatives - and said that some measures should be introduced "at an earlier phase" than proposed by the Commission. Areas in which greater urgency is sought include a strategy on information tools, integrating environmental requirements into public procurement, a possible EU role in promoting environmental product declarations, and a methodology to identify products with the greatest potential for environmental improvement.

    The Ministers also called for a more "coherent strategy" for existing and future information provision "in order to promote environmental improvements through the whole supply chain." This should include "greater synergy" between the various information and management tools, such as eco-labelling, life- cycle assessment, product declarations and the like.

    "High priority" should be given to developing criteria which would allow "environmentally negative" subsidies to be recorded. Moreover, Ministers stressed, a forthcoming Communication on the use of economic instruments should spell out how such measures might support the implementation of IPP.

  • Directive on energy taxation: The Council adopted the Directive on taxation of energy products, but did not take on board any of the European Parliament's more significant proposed amendments (ENDS Report 339, p 50 ). The Directive has many loopholes, and will make little immediate impact on levels of taxation in Member States.

  • Environment and health strategy: The Council gave strong backing to a draft strategy published by the Commission in June. In its first cycle, running from 2004 to 2010, this will focus on four main themes - childhood respiratory diseases including asthma; neurodevelopmental disorders; childhood cancer; and endocrine disrupting effects.

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