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Commission provides important update on EU environmental policy progress

The European Union’s executive branch recently published the third Environmental Implementation Review (EIR), which outlines progress on the implementation of the bloc’s key environmental policy areas, based on 27 individual country reports.

The latest Review (EIR) shows that biodiversity “continues to decline”, while air pollution remains a “major concern”, with slow progress towards achieving good status for water bodies. Moreover, whilst most of the bloc has devised circular economy strategies and action places, there are “considerable differences” between Member States’ resource productivity rates and circular materials use rates. In terms of climate legislation, there seems to be a good “overall” level of implementation throughout the EU, however “adaption efforts” in each Member State need to be intensified to cope with the harsh reality of the increasing impact of climate change.

“This year’s Environmental Implementation Review is a call to action,” said Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius. “While it shows progress in some areas since the previous review, I am concerned that in other areas, the implementation gap is still getting wider, which makes us all more vulnerable to environmental pollution and related risks. This analysis provides Member States with the tools and information they need to improve implementation and better protect our health and the environment. Let’s make good use of it!

In terms of ‘implementation enablers’, the Commission advises that many Member States need to ensure more financing is available to cover the investment needs across the environmental objectives and priorities.

For the first time, the Review compares each Member State’s available funding for environmental implementation with the investment needs. The investment needs in the EU to meet the environmental objectives stand at 110 billion euros per year. Almost two-thirds of the environmental investment gap relates to tackling general pollution and protecting and managing water bodies.

Adapting and reinforcing Member States’ administrative capacity is critical to delivering EU legal compliance and implementation and ensuring effective access to justice at national levels is essential for the implementation of environmental law. As stated by the Commission, these are the pillars of “environmental governance”.

Additionally, there is “still room” for most Member States to improve the public’s access to courts in order to challenge decisions, acts or omissions, particularly in the areas of planning relating to water, nature and/or air quality. Most Member States also need to keep the public better informed about their access to justice rights.

‘State of play’ in the key environmental policy areas, according to the Review

Biodiversity in the EU continues to decline. Some of the habitats rated as in the poorest condition across the EU are semi-natural grasslands, bogs, mires and ferns. Forests are under huge pressure and most Member States still need to speed up efforts to complete their Natura 2000 networks. In particular, Slovakia has one of the largest Natura 2000 networks, but biodiversity continues to be under pressure. There are still gaps in the designation of sites and the adoption of management plans. Nature protection and forestry law have been amended since 2020 and nature protection reform was launched in 2022 to address the negative impacts of forestry and logging in protected areas; however, its application is yet to be evaluated.

Moreover, progress towards achieving good status for water bodies is slow and some Member States are late with the adoption of key instruments to address this, notably the River Basin Management Plans. Likewise, Member States are required to adopt their flood risk management plan in a timely fashion in order to better manage the flood risks in their country. In addition, implementing rules for drinking water is still a cause of concern in a few countries. Moreover, the implementation of EU rules on nitrate and urban wastewater treatment has been sluggish due to inadequate planning and infrastructure, despite the availability of EU funds.

When it comes to circular economy practices, more action is needed to improve the recyclability potential of plastics, construction materials and textiles. Waste prevention remains an important challenge in all Member States and in some countries, substandard landfills still need to be tackled. In Croatia, progress on the separate collection and recycling of waste has been rather slow. Despite steady improvement, Croatia’s recycling rate of 30.2 per cent remains far below the EU average for 2019 (47.7 per cent) and falls significantly short of the EU target for 2020 (50 per cent). Most municipal waste is still landfilled, often without prior treatment. In 2021, the Commission opened an infringement procedure for the landfilling of waste without prior treatment in five Croatian counties, though most of the country’s counties lack waste infrastructure. Thus, more efforts are needed to ensure that waste is managed in compliance with EU waste legislation in Croatia.

Air pollution is still a major health concern for Europeans. Member States need to fulfil air quality monitoring requirements in a systematic and consistent manner in order to better enforce clean air at the national and EU levels. Achieving compliance requires strict measures, notably switching to sustainable mobility powered by renewables, and introducing low-emission agricultural techniques, including for livestock, manure and fertiliser management. For example, in Bulgaria, despite some progress in implementing measures addressing air pollution, it is still causing serious concern. Bulgaria is one of the Member States with the most pollution-related deaths, the number of years of life lost associated with air pollution and urban population exposure to micro-particles.

Overall, there is a good level of implementation of climate legislation throughout the EU; it is now important to agree on and implement the package of measures to meet the -55 per cent target established in the Climate Law for 2030. However, adaptation efforts in each Member State and at the EU level need to be intensified to cope with the harsh reality of increasing climate impacts. Appropriate action to prevent and/or minimise the climate-induced damage brings significant economic, environmental and social benefits.

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