More than anything, I want to make the environment real for citizens

Only a month after he officially took office as the new EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Mr Karmenu Vella answers our questions regarding the environment, energy, MED programmes and how GRASP’s green procurement processes may contribute into a greener Europe.

By Georgia Gioltzidou  


What are your expectations and hopes about environment protection looking towards the next 5 years?

More than anything, I want to make the environment real for citizens. Make them realise how important it is in their lives, how they rely on it, and how much they can do to protect it. And drive home the message that you can protect the environment and create jobs at the same time. The institutional background is there, in the 7th Environment Action Programme, which has just entered into force – but now we need buy-in from the people to whom it really matters. When I look back in five years’ time, I want to be able to say, yes, we have created a more sustainable Europe for citizens, the air we breathe is cleaner, the chemicals we use are safer, and our companies are more competitive on the world stage. I want to build a new wave of support for environment policy – I want people to recognise that the environment and human health are two sides of the same coin: a better environment is a necessity for a healthier, more prosperous future.


What is your toughest challenge of all?

We need to maximise the benefits from our policies. Environment policy shouldn’t always be separate – it needs to be an integral part of all the policies of the EU, and it should be factored into to decisions made by governments and policymakers everywhere. Waste-water disposal is a good example: it’s obvious that acting early to ensure effective management can help avoid the need for costly remedial action later. Reminding people of such cost-effective realities is a constant task. The second is related to the environmental standards that are already in place. They are ambitious, but they are also realistic, they are necessary and they are what citizens want. But they are not useful unless Member States actually live up to them, and so the challenge will be find ways to help Member States improve their performance. Developing the necessary tools will be important there.  


What is the Commission planning to do in order to increase the number of alternative energy methods?

The EU relies on two main programmes to support innovative energy technologies: NER 300 and Horizon 2020. NER 300 aims to demonstrate carbon capture and storage and innovative renewable energy technologies on a commercial scale. It is funded from the sale of 300m allowances under the EU emissions trading system and will support 38 innovative renewables and 1 carbon capture projects in 20 EU Member States. The total funding will be €2.1bn, which will leverage €2.8bn of private investments. Horizon 2020, the biggest EU R&D programme ever (€80 billion of funding over 2014 – 2020), will spend at least 35 % of its resources on research related to climate change. The Energy Challenge will be 100% climate-relevant, including 15% of the Challenge on fossil-fuel related R&D. Horizon 2020 grants too will attract additional private and national public investments. The Commission is currently discussing the priorities of the second work programme covering 2016/17. In addition, based on preliminary data, some €38 billion from the European Regional Development Fund and the Cohesion Fund will be allocated to the transition to a low-carbon economy. These include investments in smart distribution grids and for renewable energy production and use, as well as research and innovation in these areas. Additionally, the Connecting Europe Facility will make €5.8 billion available for energy infrastructure in 2014-2020, including interconnectors to ensure continuity of supply also in view of the higher share of renewables.


How important is the role of public sector in achieving goals on a greener Europe?

It is huge. Across Europe, on average, public authorities spend about 20% of the EU Gross Domestic Product (GDP) purchasing goods, works and services. That represents enormous leverage, and it means that public authorities wield tremendous market power. When those authorities ask for better environmental performance from the goods they purchase, companies need to listen, because the extra effort will mean a larger market for the goods in general. They can then extend their offer of more environment-friendly and resource-efficient goods to the wider public. So I see it as a highly strategic area, with the power to shift modes of production and consumption towards sustainability with environmental and social criteria. I have no doubt that Green Public Procurement is a key element for a green growth.

How important is the role of MED programmes in the framework of the promotion of renewable energies and energy efficiency improvement?

The Commission is supporting sustainable energy solutions around the Mediterranean in a number of ways, though innovative projects promoting renewables and energy efficiency, and support for policy dialogue with Mediterranean countries that are not EU Member States. More generally, Member States have to allocate significant shares of Cohesion Policy funding to support the shift towards a low-carbon economy. The INTERREG programmes (cross-border, transnational and inter-region) operating in the Mediterranean area play an important role for exchange of experiences and good practices in this respect. Capitalising on the results of several on-going projects, energy efficiency is one of the priority axis of the future 2014-2020 MED programme (www.programmemed.eu). In terms of impact around the region, the Commission’s Neighbourhood Investment Facility will be expanded over 2014-2020, providing more opportunities for leverage and partnership. We expect grant support for South Neighbourhood to reach at least €750m, enabling project financing for about €20 billion – with around 30% devoted to energy financing.


In the long term, what will be the impact of the change in procurement policies on a greener environment?

When you look at the big picture in Europe, we need to switch from a linear economic model (where we manufacture things, use them for a short period and then dispose of them), to a more circular model, where nothing is wasted. We need a system where what we used to call waste becomes a resource such that the waste from one process becomes the raw material for another. It won’t happen overnight, although it can happen relatively quickly if the positive political momentum can be generated. Green procurement policies can help. Creating markets for recycled materials, for example, and buying recycled or refurbished materials whenever possible. All it takes is environmental procurement criteria that promote the recovery of products already in use, and the use of recycled materials in products intended for final consumption.  


Finally, what message would you like to give to EU citizens about the environment?

I would say, remember that’s it’s your environment – the place where you live, work and play every day – so there is a common responsibility to make it a better environment. Your choices matter, whether it’s the food you buy, what you recycle, how you travel, and you can have a real impact through the choices you make. And take that thinking with you wherever you go – to your place of work, your social circle, out into your community. Your impact matters too, and you have more control, and more influence, than you probably imagine. Try it – you might be surprised!