HC Deb 17 December 1991 vol 201 cc104-6W
Mr. Robert G. Hughes

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the outcome of the Environment Council held on 12 to 13 December.

Mr. Flynn

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will list all meetings he and his officials have had with his counterparts in European Community countries over the past six weeks; and if he will set out the issues discussed and decisions taken at each meeting.

Mr. Heseltine

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and I represented the United Kingdom at a joint session of the Environment and Energy Councils on 13 December to discuss the Commission's recent communication on a Community strategy to limit carbon dioxide emissions and to improve energy efficiency. Conclusions were agreed which recognised the need for a strategy at Community level based on a wide-ranging package of Community and national measures. It was agreed that national programmes should be formulated for limiting CO2 emissions. It was also agreed that specific measures at Community level and a move to higher energy pricing through the use of fiscal instruments were likely to be needed. The Council invited the Commission to put forward formal proposals for measures arising from the Community strategy, including any necessary proposals for Communitywide taxations, taking into account the further studies needed and the conclusions of separate discussions by Finance Ministers.

These conclusions are a positive step Toward in the process of agreeing a coherent and coordinated approach across the Community to limiting CO2 emissions, as part of the global efforts to tackle the threat of climate change. At the same time, they clearly recognise the need for further analytical work before a decision on the questions of energy/carbon taxation can be reached. The United Kingdom will be participating in this further analysis.

My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside represented the United Kingdom at the Environment Council on 12 December.

The Council agreed a regulation setting up a Communitywide eco-labelling scheme. The scheme will provide consumers with authoritative guidance as to which products are less damaging to the environment than alternatives on the basis of an assessment of their impact over the whole of their life cycle. The scheme will be voluntary. The United Kingdom has played a leading role in the development of this scheme, and in the design of the logo which will be awarded to products meeting Community criteria. Work will now begin on defining criteria for an initial tranche of 10 to 12 product groups, with a view to the scheme being launched next autumn.

After several years of discussion, the Council finally agreed the directive to protect habitats and wild flora and fauna. The directive will establish a network of special areas of conservation for rare, endangered and vulnerable species and habitats across the Community. The network will be known as Natura 2000 and will consist of sites of international importance on the Community scale. The directive also enshrines the Berne convention into the Community's legal framework. This important measure represents a major step forward for nature conservation in the Community.

A regulation establishing a new Community fund for the environment (LIFE) was agreed. This brings together several existing funds and also incorporates a number of new areas for Community support. The projects which could benefit from Community assistance include nature protection measures under the habitats directive, development of clean technologies, measures to protect the marine environment, and environmental education, training and information initiatives.

The Council agreed a new regulation amending regulation 1734/88/EEC concerning exports and imports of certain dangerous chemicals. This will introduce the prior informed consent procedure into European Community law. It enables importing countries to decide whether or not to allow the import of an internationally agreed list of dangerous chemicals. Exporters in the Community will be prohibited from supplying these if the receiving country withholds consent. Risks to human health and the environment from chemicals in third-world countries should be reduced by this measure.

The Council adopted a common position on a regulation which provides for the collection and evaluation of data on existing chemical substances and, if necessary, proposals for control action. The regulation is complementary to the recently revised notification scheme for new chemical substances.

In the course of a discussion on the implementation and enforcement of Community legislation, there was a favourable response to ideas put forward by the United Kingdom for a Community environment inspectorate. These envisaged an audit-type inspectorate charged with ensuring that enforcement agencies within the member states were applying EC legislation effectively and consistently. It would report its findings to the Commission who would remain responsible for any necessary follow-up action. The Commission expressed its support in principle for the United Kingdom initiative and undertook to bring forward proposals next year.

Council conclusions on a common approach to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development next year were agreed. These set out the results which EC countries hope to achieve at UNCED and address in particular the financial, technological, legal and institutional issues on the UNCED agenda. EC Environment and Development Ministers will continue their preparations for UNCED at a joint Council in February.

The Council formally adopted directives against hazardous waste and on the protection of water against pollution by nitrate from agricultural sources which were agreed in principle earlier this year.

The Council also discussed the proposed regulation on the movement of waste, and new proposals on the sulphur content of gasoil and on trade in endangered species of wild flora and fauna.

The United Kingdom drew the Council's attention to new scientific evidence on the rate of depletion of the ozone layer and called for new measures to bring forward still further the deadlines agreed last year for phasing out the use of ozone-depleting substances.