Environment Action Programmes

Environment Action Programmes provide a general policy framework for the European Union’s environment policy in which the most important medium and long-term goals are defined and set out in a basic strategy, where appropriate including concrete measures. The Environment Action Programmes date back to a conference of Heads of State and Government held in October 1972 which agreed that a common Community environmental policy is essential and which called on the Commission to develop an Environment Action Programme. The 1992 Treaty of Maastricht created a contractual basis for the adoption of Environment Action Programmes. When the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force, this contractual basis was set out in Article 192 (3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Under this provision, Environment Action Programmes are issued on the proposal of the Commission by the European Parliament and the Council in an ordinary legislative procedure, and are thus formal legislative acts.

Seven Environment Action Programmes (EAPs) have been adopted so far, their duration ranging from 3 to 10 years:

  1. Environment Action Programme 1973-1976
  2. Environment Action Programme 1977-1981
  3. Environment Action Programme 1982-1986
  4. Environment Action Programme 1987-1992
  5. Environment Action Programme 1993-2000
  6. Environment Action Programme 2002-2012
  7. Environment Action Programme 2014-2020

The 8th Environment Action Programme to 2030 is currently in discussion.

The theme, the new vision and the nine priority objectives

The objective of the 7th EAP is summarised in the title "Living well, within the limits of our planet." EU environment policy must steer a course between mankind's justified desire for well-being and the limits set by the environment. This is underpinned by a vision for 2050: 

"In 2050 we live well, within the planet's ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society's resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society."

To realise this vision, priority objectives to be achieved by 2020 have been identified for nine areas. Three are sectoral:

  • Natural capital,
  • A resource-efficient, green and competitive low-carbon economy
  • Environment and health

four are horizontal measures:

  • Implementation
  • Knowledge base
  • Environmental externalities
  • Coherence

and two have a spatial dimension:

  • Sustainable cities
  • International environmental protection.

Priority objective

Priority objective 1: Natural capital

  • To halt the loss of biological diversity and restore at least 15% of degraded ecosystems.
  • To significantly reduce pressures on water bodies and ensure their good ecological status. This includes setting targets for reducing marine litter.
  • To reduce air pollution, in particular through greater compliance with air quality legislation.
  • To adequately protect soil.
  • To improve management of the nutrient cycle (especially nitrogen and phosphorus).

Priority objective 2: A resource-efficient, green and competitive low-carbon economy

  • To reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. To this end, a climate and energy framework for 2030 should be established without delay.
  • To significantly reduce the overall environmental impact of all major sectors of the Union economy.
  • To reduce environmental impacts of the food, housing and mobility sectors through new technologies and lifestyle changes.
  • To reduce waste and manage it safely as a resource.
  • To make public procurement greener.
  • To improve water efficiency.

Priority objective 3: Environment and health

  • To significantly improve outdoor and indoor air quality.
  • To significantly decrease noise pollution.
  • To ensure safe drinking and bathing water.
  • To address open questions relating to chemicals policy, in particular combination effects, nanomaterials, endocrine disruptors (substances which alter the hormone system).
  • Improvements in adaptation to climate change.

Priority objective 4: Implementation

  • To improve access to environment-related information.
  • To ensure better compliance with environmental legislation.
  • To further harmonise surveillance of environmental provisions.
  • To support networks of experts working in enforcement.
  • To secure access to justice. To promote non-judicial resolution of disputes.

Priority objective 5: Knowledge base

  • To ensure that policy-makers are more informed on environmental issues, including the costs of non-action.
  • To significantly improve understanding of environmental problems (including risk management).
  • To achieve more effective data collection and application.
  • To continue human and environmental biomonitoring.

Priority objective 6: Environmental externalities

  • To make environmental protection cost-effective.
  • To support environmental protection through suitable public and private sector funding.
  • To properly assess the value of natural capital and ecosystem services and take them into appropriate consideration.
  • To phase out environmentally harmful subsidies.
  • To dedicate 20% of the EU budget to climate change mitigation and adaptation.
  • To apply alternative indicators as a supplement to GDP in order to monitor the sustainability of progress.

Priority objective 7: Coherence

  • To better integrate environmental protection into other policies.
  • To this end the EU and Member States will conduct ex-ante impact assessments before political initiatives are implemented.
  • To fully implement the Directives on Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment.
  • To carry out ex-post impact assessments to improve the coherence of EU environmental legislation.

Priority objective 8: Sustainable cities

  • To make urban planning more sustainable, especially in the fields of mobility, buildings, energy efficiency and biological diversity.
  • This involves sharing experience and improving access to financing.

Priority objective 9: International environmental protection

  • To implement the commitments made at Rio+20.
  • To ensure active EU involvement in shaping international processes. In regional cooperation, particular emphasis on the Black Sea and the Arctic.
  • Further intensify cooperation with third countries, especially with strategic partners.
  • To give the United Nations a more environmentally sound structure for sustainable development.
  • To optimise use of funding.
  • To improve implementation of international environmental law.
  • To work towards a global system of emissions trading.

Successes in implementation

The European Commission defined a climate and energy policy framework for the period 2020-2030 as early as January 2014. The European Council adopted the conclusions for the framework in October 2014. In accordance with the framework, annual greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by 80 to 95 percent compared to 1990 levels. The interim reduction targets of the EU comprise binding reductions of 20 per cent by 2020 and at least 40 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. In order to implement these targets, various legislative acts are currently being deliberated.

In late 2015, the Commission also presented a circular economy action plan to promote Europe’s transition to circular economy which fosters global competitiveness, contributes to sustainable economic growth and creates new jobs. This is another area where various legislative acts for the implementation of the plan are being deliberated.

With regard to air pollution, the European Commission had suggested updating the NEC Directive (National Emissions Ceiling Directive). The new EU Directive on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants entered into force on 31 December 2016.

Furthermore, under its new EIR initiative, the European Commission published a report on the environmental implementation review (EIR) which contained shared challenges and joint efforts to achieve better results with an Annex and 28 national EIR reports on 3 and 6 February 2017. The report highlights current discrepancies between the commitments resulting from EU law and political agreements vs. real local conditions and the most important implementation problems in individual member states from the Commission’s perspective; it also outlines possible solutions. The report addresses topics such as circular economy and waste management, nature and biodiversity, air quality and noise, water and (the tools of) "market-based instruments and investments" and "Effective management and enforcement". The national EIR report attests that Germany generally pursues a strong environmental policy and environmental legislation, and it highlights, for instance, the high recycling rates. At the same time, it also outlines/mentions important challenges such as improving air quality or contains/makes proposals for cooperation with other countries to improve implementation.