Greener on the Other Side: Seven Environmental Lessons from the European Union

By Meadowcroft, James | Alternatives Journal, November-December 2008 | Go to article overview

Greener on the Other Side: Seven Environmental Lessons from the European Union


Meadowcroft, James, Alternatives Journal


OVER THE PAST decade and a half, Europe has become something of an international environmental leader. Climate policy in the European Union (EU)--with a variety of programs and measures, including emissions trading--has been in advance of most other developed countries. European states such as Germany, Sweden, Denmark and, more recently, the UK, have pushed forward innovations in various environmental domains. Some of these are discussed in this issue of Alternatives, such as the European emissions trading system ("No Carbon Copy" page 10) and the drive for renewables in Germany ("A Fine Act to Follow" page 18). But there are other examples. The Swedish system of national environmental objectives, for instance, involves long-term environmental goals and an independent agency to monitor progress. And the new UK climate bill introduces five-year "carbon budgets," also with regular assessment by an independent expert body.

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So how did Europe come to occupy this leadership role? And what can other developed countries learn from the European experience?

European leadership

European contributions occur at both the EU and the member-state level. The two are closely related since the Union has been able to develop a forward-looking environmental policy only because a significant group of member states has continuously pressed the issue. Positions vary on specific topics, but states such as Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark have often fought for more stringent environmental standards. On climate change, the UK has played a pusher role. These governments have helped ensure a continuous ratcheting-up of EU environmental policy, as the need to create a level playing field within the Union--to advance the single European market--has led to an increasing role for EU directives in the environmental area. Also, as the EU has expanded, new member groups have been obliged to accept the environmental acquis communautaire as a condition of entry, thereby enlarging the realm of improved environmental behaviour. Moreover, across the Union, environmental regulation has pushed businesses to meet higher standards, and the booming market for environmental technologies has driven exports and encouraged the extension of environmental initiatives.

Two other factors help account for the EU's relatively strong performance on environmental issues. First, as Europe integrated more closely, the EU looked for areas in which it could exercise international leadership commensurate with its economic strength. The environment appeared as a promising candidate that drew on EU accomplishments and was amenable to "soft power" resources. But credibility on the international stage demands a robust domestic stance, so a positive cycle of reinforcement developed, where internal and external considerations encouraged a more ambitious environmental perspective. Over time, a modest cult of "environmental virtue" has pervaded the institutions of the Union, and EU officials and politicians are proud to vaunt their achievements.

Second, there is the poor performance of other developed states. After all, leadership is relative. The virtual abandonment of the climate change file by other industrial countries--especially the US, but also Canada and, for a long time, Australia--has helped cast the EU in a favourable light. Thus the EU, by almost meeting its Kyoto targets, appears as an environmental champion.

With respect to individual member states, the political, economic and cultural factors that lie behind their environmental performance are numerous and complex. It seems that states with consensual, social democratic and/or corporatist governance models, and that are used to a healthy dose of state intervention have more success in managing environmental dilemmas. Some role has been played by the long and settled nature of European societies, and their comparatively high population densities, which make environmental problems especially manifest. …

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