HC Deb 15 March 2002 vol 381 cc1285-7W
Mr. Connarty

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what the outcome was of the Environment Council on 4 March; what the Government's stance was on the issues discussed, including its voting record; and if she will make a statement. [40946]

Margaret Beckett

I represented the UK at Environment Council on 4 March, accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, and the Minister for the Environment in the Welsh Assembly Government, Sue Essex. This was the first Environment Council of the Spanish Presidency. A Council decision on ratification of the Kyoto Protocol was agreed; the UK voted in favour. Four sets of Council Conclusions were adopted. Council also held a public debate exploring key aspects of a recently adopted Commission proposal for a directive establishing a regime for environmental liability.

The agreement of the Council decision on ratification of the Kyoto Protocol will enable the Community and member states to ratify the Protocol in time for it to enter into force before the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in August, subject to sufficient ratifications by other signatories. A legal base requiring a qualified majority (Article 175(1) of the Treaty) was agreed for the decision; at the UK's request a recital was added making clear that the legal base chosen for this decision should not be taken as a precedent for future decisions on burden-sharing. A declaration was also agreed noting Council's intention to agree future burden-sharing decisions by consensus. Council also adopted Conclusions reacting to the US climate change plan. These included a call upon Parties to the UN framework Convention on Climate Change—including the US—to live up to their responsibilities under the Convention, and a confirmation of the EU's willingness to continue dialogue through the EU-US High Level Group.

In preparation for WSSD, Council Conclusions were adopted setting out the EU's priorities including poverty eradication, access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and ways of giving special attention to Africa. Council reaffirmed the Gothenburg commitment to reach the UN target for official development assistance of 0.7 per cent of GDP and called for integration of sustainable development in bilateral and multilateral co-operation agreements. Council welcomed the Commission communication "Towards a Global Partnership for Sustainable Development" and its proposals for the components of a Global Deal at the Summit. The Conclusions identified EU actions in the run up to Johannesburg and beyond including the early ratification of several international environmental agreements. The Conclusions also stressed the need for integration and coherence of internal and external policies to ensure that the EU's economic, social and environmental objectives were mutually supportive and that the EU effectively contributed to sustainable development at all levels. The global dimension should be regularly addressed as part of the overall Sustainable Development package at Spring meetings of the European Council.

Council also agreed Conclusions on the EU Sustainable Development Strategy, to be submitted to the Barcelona European Council. The Conclusions took note of the Commission's synthesis report for 2002 and stressed the need to reflect environmental issues more extensively and to treat the three dimensions of sustainable development in a more balanced way. Council called on the Commission to put in place a system of Sustainability Impact Assessment as soon as possible and emphasised the importance of the EU becoming a highly eco-efficient economy.

Council Conclusions were adopted setting out the EU negotiating position for the Sixth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, taking place in the Hague between 7–19 April. The Conclusions stressed the need for early ratification by the Community and member states of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the International Treaty on Plan Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Council also supported the preparation of an action plan for capacity-building for access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing. The Conclusions also called for increased co-ordination between international organisations and conventions, including the World Intellectual Property Organisation Inter-Governmental Committee, and the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

In the public debate on the proposed environmental liability regime, principal concerns expressed by other member states were the generous extent of the defences available to polluters, the potential burden on member states if polluters failed to act, and the scope of the directive. Several member states thought that there was a need to consider whether there was a gap in the proposed regime concerning damage caused by genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Beyond this, member states were evenly divided on whether the scope should be extended and on the need for a common framework for insurance. I underlined the complex nature of the proposal and the need to take on board the views of stakeholders. I argued that we would need careful examination of the associated costs and benefits of any proposed change to its scope, the defences or insurance arrangements.

The Spanish Presidency gave progress reports on a proposed directive establishing a Community greenhouse gas trading scheme; amendments to Directive 94/62/EC, concerning recycling and recovery targets for packaging and packaging waste; and amendments to Directive 96/82/EC, on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substances (SEVESO II). The Commission presented proposals allowing Community implementation and ratification of the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety. The Commission also updated Council on progress on chemicals legislation, a proposed directive on recycling of batteries and accumulators, and a proposed White Paper on integrated product policy.

Under Any Other Business, Spain reported on the outcome of a recent seminar considering the incorporation of gender perspectives into EU environmental policy-making. Austria reported on an international conference held in November 2001 on the role of the precautionary principle in chemicals policy. Germany invited Ministers to consider the environmental implications of the proposed airport noise directive currently under discussion in Transport Council. My right hon. Friend, the Minister for the Environment, noted that two recent studies had suggested a connection between transport and asthma in children. Contributory causes appeared to be ozone, particulates and nitrogen oxides. The Commission welcomed the dissemination of the research, and noted that it would shortly publish a Communication on children's health and the environment.

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