The implementation of a sustainable growth strategy that increases human welfare without compromising the ecological limits of the planet requires oversight, a framework of accountability, and the introduction of policy tools to govern environmental management. Governance is one of the most important factors for ensuring effective environmental management and conservation actions.
On Monday, 13 September 2021, Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, delivered a keynote address, as part of the ‘Environmental Resilience’ series, co-organised by the IIEA and EPA. The Commissioner reviewed the EU’s biodiversity and ecological priorities and outlined the vital role that environmental governance plays in achieving these objectives.
This paper begins by examining three significant elements of the EU’s environment agenda. Section II continues by highlighting the indispensable role of good environmental governance in the realisation of these objectives. Section III of the paper examines the international governance system, which is organised around the UN Environment Programme. In Section IV, the EU’s current environmental governance framework is appraised. In the final section of the paper, Section V, there is an analysis of Ireland’s environmental governance performance.
Section I: The European Green Deal
To respond to the emergency posed by climate change and environmental degradation, the European Commission is implementing a suite of measures designed to reconcile Europe’s economy with the planet. The European Green Deal aims to transform the Union from a carbon-intensive bloc to a carbon-neutral one, and to reverse biodiversity loss and restore ecosystems. In essence, the European Green Deal constitutes a fundamental reappraisal of economic policy, a reimagination of the production cycle, and a recalibration of energy supply and environmental governance frameworks, through a set of interconnected initiatives that cover a range of sectors from energy, transport, and waste management to climate, agriculture, and biodiversity.
1.1.The EU’s Biodiversity Strategy 2030
In his address to the IIEA, Commissioner Sinkevičius presented the key elements of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 – Europe’s long-term plan to protect nature and reverse ecosystem degradation. He emphasised the urgency of action in this domain and highlighted that, due to human activities, wildlife populations have fallen by 60% in the last four decades.
Ecological collapse has direct and negative consequences for societies and economies. For instance, as the Commissioner highlighted, healthy and productive agriculture depends on the presence of healthy ecosystems and, in turn, healthy agri-ecosystems can store carbon which is important in the context of Europe’s target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, at the latest.
Farmers will be among the first to suffer if Europe fails to remedy the current biodiversity crisis, as soils degrade, and pollinators disappear. Sound ecological management makes economic as well as environmental sense. The impact of land and soil degradation in the EU amounts to costs of €38 billion per year, while the benefits of soil restoration are 10 times greater than the costs.
The Biodiversity Strategy sets a target of 2030 by which to restore degraded European ecosystems and to then manage them sustainabily, enforced by legally binding ‘nature restoration targets’, which the Commission will present by the end of 2021.
1.2.Farm to Fork Strategy
The Commissioner also discussed the EU strategy for a sustainable food system – Farm to Fork Strategy. The strategy is designed to enhance the resilience and sustainability of Europe’s food systems through a transformation of the way people produce, process, transport, market, and consume food products. The Commission also aims to use this strategy to help those in farming and fisheries to strengthen their position in the supply chain.
1.3.The EU’s Forest Strategy
The EU’s Forest Strategy, which was unveiled in July 2021, includes a number of commitments to improve the quantity and quality of EU forests and strengthen their protection, restoration and resilience to new conditions brought about by climate change. The strategy places emphasis on supports for socio-economic functions of forests for rural areas and to boost forest-based bioeconomy within sustainable boundaries. Forests are essential for public health and the health of the planet. They are rich in biodiversity and are hugely important in the fight against climate change.
The EU intends to plant 3 billion additional trees by 2030, an objective which Commissioner Sinkevičius noted may be of interest to Ireland and its national afforestation scheme. Forest cover in Ireland is rising, but is still at approximately 11% of total land area – one of the lowest shares in the EU.
Section II: Environmental Governance and Resilience
Good environmental governance will be one of the most important factors to ensure effective environmental management and the realisation of the EU’s environmental priorities.
Environmental governance comprises the rules, practices, policies and institutions that shape how humans interact with the environment. The term refers to the system of actors, institutions and norms which “establish responsibility and accountability, and build trust and capacity to cooperate in policymaking, decision-making, implementation and enforcement, in the field of the environment.”
Management of the environment concerns every environmental stakeholder in society, including: government, actors in the private sector, civil society groups, NGOs and individual citizens. Building up good environmental governance requires close cooperation between international, regional and national bodies. A central objective of environmental governance is to maintain and improve the ability of environmental systems to function. Governance structures are important means by which to reduce tensions, and provide clarity, within and between countries on the use of limited natural resources.
Environmental policy design is embedded within a kinetic political context that includes many actors, often with differing interests and priorities. A framework for environmental governance to ensure that ecological and biodiversity considerations are mainstreamed into economic and development plans is necessary to improve environmental outcomes. Indeed, good environmental governance is essential to both the realisation of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and the EU’s Fit for 55 2030 targets.
Section III: The International Environmental Governance System
The international environmental governance system is organised around the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). In her address to the IIEA as part of the Environmental Resilience lecture series, on 22 April 2021, Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, highlighted that the accelerating climate, biodiversity, and pollution crises are undermining hard-won development gains. In 2010, UN Member States agreed on a series of biodiversity targets for 2020, but all were missed. Eliminating this ‘implementation gap’ – the discrepancy between what is decided and ultimately implemented – is a critical component of good environmental governance.
As most environmental challenges and their impacts are transboundary, and many global in nature, international cooperation among UN Member States through legal frameworks is indispensable to the creation of effective responses and solutions. Multilateral Environment Agreements (MEAs), such as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, have been effective at improving environmental standards by inducing states to change policies in a manner conducive to a cleaner and safer environment.
Reduction in the levels of stratospheric ozone pollution; the significant decline of European acid rain; the stabilisation of regional seas, and the decline in the number of oil spills can all be recognised as considerable achievements of the international environmental governance system. However, at present the planet is heading towards a temperature increase in excess of 3oC this century. 1 million species face extinction and present levels of pollution will cause approximately 9 million deaths in 2021. Reform of the international environmental governance structures, at the UN level, is essential to ensure a sustainable future in line with an environmentally resilient future within planetary boundaries.
The European Union has an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership necessary to ensure that coordinated and robust environmental governance frameworks are instituted to meet the necessary ecological reforms.
The EU’s Environmental Governance Framework
In his recent presentation to the IIEA, Environment Commissioner Sinkevičius underscored the importance of good environmental governance to implement the EU’s environmental objectives. The 2019 Environmental Implementation Review found that the full implementation of EU environment legislation could save the EU economy €50 billion every year in health costs and direct costs to the environment.
In response to the unprecedented environmental, climate and sustainability pressures, the European Commission produced the 8th Environment Action Programme (EAP) in October 2020. This proposal supports the objectives of the European Green Deal and is intended to increase coherence between actions across all levels of governance to ensure that EU climate and environment laws are implemented in an integrated way. The 8th EAP will serve as an important monitoring framework of objectives to narrow, and eventually close, the implementation gap.
Robust laws are necessary to effectively safeguard biodiversity. At the EU level, environmental agencies, inspectors, police forces, prosecutors and judges of all Member States convene at the annual Environmental Compliance and Governance Forum, where they assess the implementation of environmental law across the Union and address the challenges to the application of EU rules on water, nature, waste, and air. The Commission is currently working on a proposal to strengthen the Environmental Crime Directive and expects that this will succeed in strengthening compliance assurance.
In his address to the IIEA, Commissioner Sinkevičius also drew attention to the important role that citizen engagement and environmental NGOs play in environmental governance, especially with respect to counteracting, highlighting, and challenging the failures of governments or public authorities, sometimes through the courts.
Rather than considering such public participation as a brake on decision making, the Commissioner emphasised that this civic engagement often acts as an important legal safeguard. Many decisions of the Court of Justice on the EU (CJEU) nature directives are the result of questions being put to the CJEU by national courts following legal actions by NGOs. As for access to justice, the CJEU has stressed the importance of NGOs being able to act in the public interest and in July 2021, the European Council and European Parliament agreed to increase the rights of NGOs to challenge decisions of EU institutions, including the Commission, under the Aarhus Regulation.
Section IV: Environmental Governance in Ireland
The Irish Government has made several commitments to increase environmental standards, such as the introduction of a circular economy action plan; the expansion of the clean ocean initiative; the phasing-out of single-use plastics; and a pledge to deliver on an afforestation plan. However, at present there is still an implementation gap between commitment and action.
Commissioner Sinkevičius reflected on some positive examples of good environmental governance, such as the results-based farming model developed in the Burren, County Clare, with the help of EU funds. In this model, payments are made to farmers based on the realisation of specific ecological targets. However, he also outlined his serious concerns with respect to the status of blanket bogs and raised bogs, old oak woodlands, and semi-natural grasslands in Ireland. The Commissioner also drew attention to the concerning situation regarding the viability of many Irish farmland birds and other rare species – such as the freshwater pearl mussel, which depend on very clean rivers. On balance, Ireland’s position with respect to monitoring and enforcement is very similar to the overall picture around the Union.
Indeed, the EPA’s 2020 ‘State of the Environment’ report reveals that the overall quality of Ireland’s environment is not what it should be, and that an acceleration of the implementation of solutions across all sectors of society is urgently needed. The report outlines that the environmental challenges which Ireland faces cut across different environmental topics, such as climate, air, soil, water, biodiversity and waste, and across organisations and sectors, businesses and all levels of society. It emphasises that coherent governance structures are essential to the implementation of effective environmental legislation and policy, and recommends that a review of domestic governance frameworks be undertaken.
With less than 10 years to realise the Sustainable Development Goals, and to meet a suite of ambitious EU targets related to climate, energy and the environment, many analysts are referring to this period as ‘the decade of action’. To build a shared environment of resilience and to develop an international economy that can operate within ecological boundaries will require the mobilisation of all sectors of society. The development of enhanced environmental governance arrangements will help to catalyse this transformation.