Less than a week after the Climate Change Conference finished in Glasgow, the Commission adopted on Wednesday three new initiatives to make the European Green Deal a reality.
“This shows that we are serious about the Green Deal,” Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, said at a press conference in Brussels, where he presented the initiatives together with the Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevicius. “Our work didn’t stop with COP26 but continues now with concrete action.”
In particular, he highlighted EU’s import of commodities from regions in the world where they act as drivers of deforestation.
The Commission is proposing new rules to curb EU-driven deforestation, as well as new rules to facilitate intra-EU waste shipments to promote circular economy and tackle the export of illegal waste and waste challenges to third countries. It also presented a new Soil strategy to have all European soils restored, resilient, and adequately protected by 2050.
“To succeed in the global fight against the climate and biodiversity crises we must take the responsibility to act at home as well as abroad,” Timmermans summarised. “Our deforestation regulation answers citizens’ calls to minimise the European contribution to deforestation and promote sustainable consumption.”
“Our new rules to govern waste shipments will boost the circular economy and ensure that waste exports do not harm the environment or human health elsewhere. And our soil strategy will allow soil to get healthy, be used sustainably and receive the legal protection it needs.”
The Commission proposes a new Regulation to curb EU-driven deforestation and forest degradation. Just counting from 1990 to 2020 the world has lost lost 420 million hectares of forest – an area larger than the EU. The new rules would guarantee that the products that EU citizens buy, use and consume on the EU market do not contribute to global deforestation and forest degradation.
The main driver of these processes is agricultural expansion linked to the commodities soy, beef, palm oil, wood, cocoa and coffee, and some of their derived products.
The Regulation sets mandatory due diligence rules for companies which want to place these commodities on the EU market with the aim to ensure that only deforestation-free and legal products are allowed on the EU market. In fact, there is no need for certification of companies since the import to the EU of commodities causing deforestation will be banned to the EU, Commissioner Sinkevicius explained.
Against illegal waste shipments
Under the revised Regulation on waste shipments, the Commission is proposing stronger rules on waste exports, a more efficient system for the circulation of waste as a resource and determined action against waste trafficking. Waste exports to non-OECD countries will be restricted and only allowed if third countries are willing to receive certain wastes and are able to manage them sustainably.
One of the most serious forms of environmental crime as illegal shipments potentially comprise up to 30% of waste shipments worth €9.5 billion annually.
Waste shipments to OECD countries will be monitored and can be suspended if they generate serious environmental problems in the country of destination. Under the proposal, all EU companies that export waste outside the EU should ensure that the facilities receiving their waste are subject to an independent audit showing that they manage this waste in an environmentally sound manner.
Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the enforcement regime includes setting up an EU Waste Shipment Enforcement Group, empowering the European Anti-Fraud Office OLAF to support transnational investigations by EU Member States on waste trafficking, and providing stronger rules on administrative penalties.
Against soil degradation
The Commission also presented a new EU Soil Strategy for tackling the climate and biodiversity crises. Healthy soils are the foundation for 95% of the food we eat, they host more than 25% of the biodiversity in the world, and are the largest terrestrial carbon pool on the planet, according to the Commission. Yet, 70% of soils in the EU are not in a good condition.
The strategy sets a framework with concrete measures for the protection, restoration and sustainable use of soils and proposes a set of voluntary and legally binding measures. It aims to increase the soil carbon in agricultural land, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, and ensure that by 2050, all soil ecosystems are in a healthy condition.
The strategy calls for ensuring the same level of protection to soil that exists for water, the marine environment and air in the EU. This will be done through a proposal by 2023 for a new Soil Health Law, following an impact assessment and broad consultation of stakeholders and Member States.
A similar initiative was launched by the Commission 15 years ago but was blocked then by a number of member states. This time, some of them have changed their mind and the Commissioner was optimistic about passing the law by 2023.
What about international legislation against ecocide to protect land, soil and forests against multinationals, including European companies, that today cannot be held accountable globally and only prosecuted if there is legislation in a national jurisdiction?
A spokesperson of the Commission told The Brussels Times during COP26 that its position had not changed. “More information and research is necessary before any conclusions can be drawn, also on which kind of concerted action is needed and at what level.”
Vice-President Timmermans admitted yesterday that there was no initiative at COP26 to transfer “legal personality to Mother Nature” in the sense that ecocide or threat to biodiversity could be subject of litigation.
“The issue of ecocide is very much a subject of COP15 (the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009) and of biodiversity and not of COP26,” he said. In fact, ecocide could also have been covered by COP26 since it is among others about protecting rainforests that serve as carbon sinks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming.
That said, there are a number of EU member states, and governments and companies in other countries, that are taken to court if the do not comply with their own targets on decarbonising the economy and protecting the natural environment. “In that sense Mother Nature is increasingly subject of litigation if its interests are hurt,” he added. “I believe that this will increase over the years.”
In the EU, there is already a directive since 2008 on the protection of the environment through criminal law. The directive obliges member states to provide for criminal penalties in their national legislation in respect of serious infringements of provisions of Community law on the protection of the environment.
Commissioner Sinkevicius added that the Commission will present a revision of the environmental crime directive in December. The broad scope of the issue raised by ecocide legislation will be covered in the new directive, according to the Commissioner. Whether that will enable EU to sue companies and governments for ecocide outside the EU remains to be seen.
The Brussels Times