30.4.2004   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 112/83


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘realities and prospects for appropriate environmental technologies in the candidate countries’.

(2004/C 112/23)

On 17 July 2003, the European Economic and Social Committee decided to draw up an opinion, under Rule 29(2) of its Rules of Procedure, on the following subject: realities and prospects for appropriate environmental technologies in the candidate countries.

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on this subject, adopted its opinion on 4 March 2004. The rapporteur was Mr Ribbe.

At its 407th plenary session, held on 31 March and 1 April 2004, (meeting of 31 March), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 80 votes to one, with two abstentions:

1.   Starting point — general observations on environmental technologies

1.1

It is clear from a large number of studies and public reports that, whilst much has already been done in order, for example, to provide clean air and water, considerable efforts undoubtedly still have to be made, both in the existing Member States and also in the candidate countries, in order to safeguard the fundamental natural requirements for human life, to conserve Europe's national heritage, to comply with the existing environmental laws and to set Europe on the road to achieving sustainable development.

1.2

It is well known that environmental technologies have an important role to play in providing solutions to particular environmental problems. The Commission is fully aware of this and has drawn up an Environmental Technologies Action Plan for the EU (1), which is currently being discussed with the institutions involved and organised civil society. The EESC has welcomed this measure since the application of environmental technologies (e.g. sewage plants and filtration plants) has brought about important progress in the field of environmental conservation in recent years and decades. This applies in the case of both fixed plants, such as industrial plants or power stations, and also in the case of mobile technical facilities.

1.3

The setting — and subsequent tightening — of motor vehicle exhaust emission limits are an example of a clean environment technology which has undergone constant technical development. This example does, however, also demonstrate that:

particularly progress as regards the development and introduction of environmental technologies such as catalytic converters, can frequently only be realised in the wake of intense political debate; people will remember how opposed the motor-vehicle industry was at the time to the introduction of these measures. Furthermore, this political debate appears to be stirring again, this time in connection with diesel-particulate filters;

environmental technologies are not without their limits; whilst it has been possible to decisively reduce nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide emissions, in particular, there are still no technologies which can be readily applied in practice for curbing, for example, CO2 or CFC emissions, which are clearly responsible for one of the greatest environmental challenges with which we will have to contend in future, namely climatic problems.

1.4

Environmental technologies have therefore become a key element of environmental policy. In cases where technical solutions, alone, cannot provide an adequate, successful answer to problems, structural changes will however be required. In this opinion, the EESC will however confine itself to examining various aspects of the field of environmental technologies.

1.5

Environmental technologies are, however, important not just on grounds of environmental policy. The scientific work and industry involved in environmental technologies have now become an important economic factor and source of employment; turnover in this field in the EU is in excess of EUR 183 billion (2). The EESC has also already welcomed the European Commission's recent communication entitled Developing an action plan for environmental technology (3).

1.6

Past experience does, however, show that, as is the case in many other sectors of the economy, there is not enough funding available in the field of environmental technologies to enable all the projects which have been identified and recognised as being essential to be implemented within the desired timeframe. Many essential environmental measures may therefore not be realised.

The situation in the candidate countries

1.7

It is neither possible nor desirable for this opinion to make a general appraisal of the situation and the trend, as regards the environment and environmental conservation, in the candidate countries. The situation is much too complex to enable this trend to be summed up in purely positive or negative terms. One thing which is clear is that, in the last few years, the situation with regard to many of the directly obvious (local) cases of environmental damage in the candidate countries has undergone a tremendous improvement. On the other hand, other, less directly obvious, environmental problems have arisen (4). There is, however, no doubting the fact that the closure of particularly polluting industries and the introduction of ‘clean’ technologies has, in recent years, made it possible to reduce many direct health risks caused by environmental pollution.

1.8

Nonetheless, very much still has to be done if the environmental standards prescribed by EU law are to be met. Investments in environmental infrastructure totalling, approximately, between EUR 80 billion and EUR 110 billion will be required in order to apply the existing body of EU law in the CEEC (5). Funding is, however, in short supply in the candidate countries, too, and public investments in the environment also have to compete with the demands of other forms of public expenditure in fields such as social policy, education and infrastructure. In the case of investments by industry and private individuals, too, the aim is to avoid the misallocation of funds, wherever possible. It will therefore be necessary to make the most effective use of the available funding and to seek efficient solutions which provide good value for money.

1.9

This opinion will therefore deal with environmental technologies in the central and eastern European countries (CEEC). A large number of the examples used in this opinion derive from Poland. Poland is, on the one hand, the largest of the candidate countries which will receive a considerable proportion of future EU aid. Poland is, on the other hand, also characterised, like virtually no other candidate country, by sharp distinctions between urban and rural areas; as this opinion will demonstrate, this situation is of considerable relevance in the context of environmental technologies. Poland is also virtually in a class of its own amongst the candidate countries as regards the further radical changes in the industrial sector facing the country. Finally, Poland was also chosen as an example in view of the fact that the EESC has a long history of cooperating with Poland in the field of environmental conservation.

1.10

The observations and demands expressed in this opinion are, however, applicable to all of the candidate countries and are also valid with regard to many of the existing EU Member States.

Funding for environmental conservation in the candidate countries

1.11

In the last few years, i.e. in the run-up to enlargement, the EU has already demonstrated its commitment by making grants towards environmental investment in the candidate countries. This is an important and welcome new departure vis-à-vis earlier EC enlargements. By making available this funding, the Commission highlights the growing importance of environmental conservation. Up to now, the EU has made available a number of programmes, including Phare and ISPA and, to a certain extent, SAPARD; in this context, attention should be drawn to the difficulties repeatedly underlined by the Commission with regard to the use of funds.

1.12

In the period 1995 to 2000 EUR 398.2 million was made available under the PHARE programme and EUR 460.2 million under the ISPA programme for investments in the environmental sector; the bulk of the investment was devoted to water projects (which accounted for some 82.3 % of all funding), followed by waste-disposal projects (15.7 % of the funding) and measures to combat air pollution (2 % of the funding) (6). Over the six-year period 1995 to 2000, Poland received funding totalling EUR 233.4 million (representing an average allocation of approximately EUR 40 million per year).

1.13

It should, however, be borne in mind, in this context, that the ISPA programme was not introduced until 2000. Since its establishment, the ISPA programme has made available approximately EUR 500 million for investment in environmental projects in the CEEC each year. Poland's share of this funding amounts to between 30 and 37 %.

1.14

Whilst the financial assistance already provided by the EU undoubtedly provided valuable help to the candidate countries, in the past, it should, however, be pointed out that the bulk of the funding was provided by the candidate countries themselves and this will also have to be the case in the future. Funding provided by the PHARE and ISPA programmes is able to cover only a small part of the funding requirements of the candidate countries in the environmental sector: 1.1 % of overall funding requirements in respect of water projects; 0.75 % in respect of waste-disposal projects; and only 0.03 % of the funding requirements in respect of measures to combat air pollution (figures provided by the European Court of Auditors) (7).

1.15

In the period up to 2000, overall foreign assistance in financing environmental measures in Poland, generally accounted for ‘only’ some 5 % of the total amount of investment in environmental measures; contributions from the EU also represented only part of the external aid.

1.16

This situation will, however, change substantially once Poland has joined the EU. Of the EUR 7.3 billion in funding to be provided to Poland by the EU Structural Funds in the period 2004-2006, the sum of EUR 545 million will, according to the Polish Environment Ministry, be devoted to environmental measures. Aid provided under the ISPA programme will subsequently be replaced by aid from the Cohesion Fund, which will make available almost EUR 7.6 billion in the period 2004-2006. Poland is due to be allocated between 45 % and 52 % of this sum, which represents an allocation of between EUR 3.4 billion and almost EUR 4 billion. Aid from the Cohesion Fund is, as is well known, divided equally between investments in environmental projects and transports projects. In future a sum of between EUR 1.3 billion and EUR 1.5 billion in EU funding for environmental projects will be made available to Poland each year.

1.17

The use of EU funding to finance environmental conservation measures in the candidate countries has, up to now, been far from optimal. If substantially more money is now to be made available in the future, closer attention must be paid than has hitherto been the case to ensuring that these sizeable sums are used effectively and not frittered away on illusory growth plans or inappropriate projects, involving, for example, the use of disproportionate and excessively expensive technology. In its Special Report No. 5/2003 on the financing of environmental infrastructure projects in the candidate countries, the European Court of Auditors criticised, inter alia, the fact that projects were repeatedly being approved even though there was a risk of establishing excess capacity and therefore a danger of making uneconomic use of EU funding and giving rise to unnecessarily high operating costs. One of several examples quoted in the special report is the sewage treatment plant at Szczecin in Poland, which operates at only 40 % of its capacity.

2.   What are ‘appropriate’ technologies and why are they needed?

2.1

In the EESC's view, ‘appropriate’ environmental technologies can play a very important role when the following objectives are being pursued:

devising effective projects for resolving local problems;

making financial savings, perhaps not at the planning stage but certainly at the investment stage and in respect of ongoing costs; and

creating jobs at local and regional levels.

2.2

In the view of the EESC, the term ‘appropriate technologies’ implies that, in every single case, solutions have to be sought which are geared not only to technical feasibility and technical effectiveness but also pay close attention to the local situation and the situation of local people.

2.3

A number of examples are set out below to illustrate what, in the EESC's view, is meant by the term ‘appropriate technologies’.

2.3.1   Clean air/energy efficiency

2.3.1.1

When Poland definitively severed its links with its communist past at the end of the 1980s, environmental conservation became a matter of the utmost importance in the political arena. This is hardly surprising in view of the fact that many people were severely affected by the extremely high level of environmental pollution, caused mainly by the industrial plants but also brought about coal-fired domestic heating.

2.3.1.2

In Krakow investigations were carried out to determine how the level of sulphur dioxide pollution could be reduced; this pollution was not only endangering public health but it was also responsible for the large-scale destruction of the facades of houses which represented a cultural and architectural heritage of extremely high value. One of the first planned measures was to carry out a large-scale renovation of two power stations.

2.3.1.3

Alternative calculations, made at the same time, had, however, shown that, for the same cost as that incurred in technically upgrading the power stations, twice as high a reduction in the level of sulphur dioxide could have been achieved by using the money to replace coal-fired domestic heating systems and to carry out domestic energy-saving measures (through the use of measures such as insulation and heat-saving glazing).

2.3.1.4

Implementation of the latter measures would also have enhanced the living conditions of the local population and given a shot in the arm to local craft industries, thereby making a much higher contribution towards boosting the local economy. Despite this, the funding was used to renovate the power stations; the selection of this option can undoubtedly be put down to the fact that it was also in the interests of the large foreign companies, which ultimately picked up the bulk of the orders.

2.3.2   Sewage treatment

2.3.2.1

Poland is currently making tremendous, and welcome, efforts to improve sewage treatment. After a start was made on the construction or renovation of sewage-treatment plants, first of all mainly in large towns and cities, many planning and building measures are now also underway — or have already been completed — in smaller towns and villages, too.

2.3.2.2

In the case of lightly populated rural areas the kind of central solutions which are undoubtedly right for conurbations are frequently less appropriate, both on technical and financial grounds. Nonetheless, in virtually all cases, such ‘state of the art’ solutions are planned.

2.3.2.3

A case in point is the district of Sokoly in the Province of Podlaskie in north-east Poland. This district covers 160 km2 and comprises over 29 villages which, under the current plans, are all to be linked to the sewage-treatment plant currently in the course of construction in the central town of the district.

2.3.2.4

In addition to the construction of the technical plant itself, the system of drains always constitutes one of the main items in the investment and maintenance budgets. Poland's national sewage disposal programme of December 2003 stipulates that the construction or modernisation of sewage-treatment plants is to account for only one third of total investment; two-thirds of total investment has to be allocated to the drainage system. In the case of Sokoly, it is planned to install pressure pipes (together with the corresponding cost-intensive pumping stations), in order to transport the sewage to the central treatment plant. In the case of conurbations the length of drain constructed per inhabitant is generally 0.5 metres – 2 metres, whereas in rural areas a drain length of 5-10 metres per inhabitant may be the bare minimum. In the case of Sokoly, it is planned to construct, in some cases, far more than 20 metres and even as much as 40 metres of drain per inhabitant, excluding the drains connecting individual houses to the network.

2.3.2.5

The proposals put forward by the persons responsible for sewage-disposal planning can, in no way, be regarded as constituting an appropriate solution in the light of the local conditions. The proposed solution is very strongly reminiscent of the bad planning in the field of sewage disposal carried out in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) following re-unification which led to the levying of exorbitant sewage-disposal charges and which now constitutes a real disincentive from a business-location standpoint. In the former GDR, too, projects were carried out which were based on illusory expectations of growth and an inappropriate transfer of large structures to rural areas.

2.3.2.6

Very high sewage charges resulting from the adoption of inappropriate solutions have a damaging effect on economic development in the regions concerned in two ways: on the one hand, money which has to be spent on excessively high sewage charges could be used to promote economic development in other fields and, on the other hand, higher sewage charges can deter businesses — particularly businesses which require a high level of water consumption — from becoming established in the areas concerned.

2.3.2.6.1

An umbrella body, established in the German Federal State of Thuringia in the period since re-unification, which brings together citizens campaigning against expensive sewage-treatment projects, maintains that, in the case of local authority joint ventures to provide water and sewage services, costs go through the roof once investments are partly supported by the Structural Funds. The Friedrichsroda local authority has, for instance, recently informed residents that they would be asked to pay a contribution of over EUR 10,000 in order to be connected to water-supply and sewage-disposal systems; in one case a resident was even charged EUR 99,000 to be connected to these services (8). Residents who were earlier cajoled into approving sewage-treatment projects through talk of high-capital investment grants are now responding with indignation when they hear about the subsequent costs, which were earlier concealed from them.

2.3.2.7

In this context, the EESC would also draw attention to the criticism expressed by the European Court of Auditors relating not only to excessively large sewage disposal projects but also to the activities of somewhat incompetent advisors who sell expensive projects virtually ‘off the peg’.

2.3.2.8

Another example, this time from Miroslawice, in the municipality of Trzebiatow on the Baltic, demonstrates that the fear expressed by the EESC that there would be a repetition of the earlier bad planning in this field is a real fear; it also shows that the examples identified by the European Court of Auditors are not isolated occurrences. This situation may have serious consequences, also with regard to the use of appropriate technologies. In Trzebiatow financial aid was used to construct an excessively large sewage treatment plant. In Miroslawice, which is part of the municipality of Trzebiatow, the German Federal Foundation for Environmental Conservation wanted to provide assistance for the establishment of a demonstration project involving the construction of a sewage treatment plant using a technology based on natural processes of treating sewage, which had been specially developed for small towns and villages on the Baltic Sea coast. After the project had been two years in preparation and despite the fact that the local authority had given its approval and planning and building permission had been granted, the local authority ended up by withdrawing from the project because it was discovered that the central sewage treatment plant in Trzebiatow, which had been built a short time before, urgently needed, because of its excessively large size, other towns and villages to be connected to it in order to enable it to operate more effectively. The project to utilise a decentralised, appropriate solution for the treatment of sewage, and to provide a demonstration project in that field, was thus dropped.

2.3.3   Sewage-sludge treatment

2.3.3.1

As the proverb says, necessity is the mother of invention. The official in charge of sewage treatment for the local authority Zambrow in north-east Poland had (hitherto) no funding available to enable him to install technical equipment for sewage-sludge treatment. He came up with the following solution: part of the sewage sludge is composted, making use of earthworms, which he describes as ‘his most faithful and most effective workers’; a further part of the sewage sludge is spread on reed beds in the sewage-treatment plant, which have developed into a real paradise for nature. Members of the public and farmers are keen to take away the compost as they value its soil-enriching properties (9). In Zambrow the cost of sewage-sludge treatment amounts to only 5 % of the equivalent costs incurred by treatment plants which process and dispose of the sewage sludge using technical solutions. A factor of decisive importance here — and this is also one aspect of determining whether the technique employed is ‘appropriate’ — is that, in the case of Zambrow, the sewage sludge is not contaminated by harmful substances (and this is the case in many rural communities in the candidate countries). As a result of the process described above, the local district of Zambrow has the lowest sewage-treatment costs of the region. Although Zambrow has an effective and cost-efficient sewage and sewage-sludge treatment plant, the solution devised by the local official himself is only rarely put forward as a model for new systems.

2.3.3.2

The EESC points out that, particularly in the case of rural areas, there are perfectly practical (appropriate) sewage treatment technologies in respect of which the problem of sewage sludge does not even arise, e.g. in the case of plant-based sewage-treatment facilities.

Further examples

2.3.4

Whilst not claiming to have come anywhere near to producing an exhaustive list, further possible examples of appropriate environmental technologies may be quoted, namely decentralised energy-generation facilities.

2.3.5

Germany is a country which, for the past few years, has been making increased use of renewable sources of energy, which have a neutral effect on levels of carbon dioxide. Germany can thus be cited as an example of how the use of appropriate environmental technologies can also establish a beneficial link between environmental issues and employment.

2.3.6

Germany is now using more steel for the construction of windmills than is used in the ship-building industry. In particular areas suffering from structural weaknesses, such as East Friesland, the use of wind power has made it possible to create several thousand new jobs.

2.3.7

It is now becoming increasingly worthwhile for farmers in Germany to build and operate methane gas plants in order to provide a new, additional source of income. Schools and other public buildings are increasingly being heated using locally-produced renewable sources of energy, such as wood shavings, rather than the traditional fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, which have to be imported over long distances. In the coal-producing area of Nordrhein-Westfalen alone, over 1000 wood pellet combustion plants have been set up, thereby not only making for a cleaner environment but also creating new jobs.

2.3.8

For every heating installation burning wood shavings used to heat, for example, town halls, schools, municipal halls, residential homes for old people or hospitals in small towns, there is soon a need for three, four or even five farmers to obtain supplies of small-dimensioned wood from forests, to cut the wood and to see to its transport to the heating plants.

2.3.9

In countries such as Austria and the Scandinavian states, too, there has, for example, been a boom in the construction and operation of wood pellet plants. In the candidate countries, on the other hand, virtually no renewable energy plants have so far been established.

3.   Lessons to be learned from the abovementioned examples

3.1

The EESC recommends the Commission to carry out a closer examination, as part of its planned strategy for promoting environmental technologies, of the reasons behind such differences in the use of appropriate environmental technologies. The EESC does of course realise that it is especially necessary for the right basic economic conditions to apply. Particularly in those countries (such as Poland) which continue to have a highly subsidised coal industry, which is not matched by the provision for support for alternative forms of energy, even energy saving measures are, in some cases, uneconomic.

3.2

In addition to the lack of the requisite legal bases, attention should also be drawn, above all, to the comparatively poor financing conditions. When interest rates can be as high as 20 %, investments are not always redeemed within a short period, in some cases despite the considerable energy-saving potential involved. Contracting models (privately funded, unit-linked, etc. models) could therefore become highly important and should be promoted to a greater extent.

3.3

It must be in the interests of the European Commission — also from the point of view of promoting sustainable development — to identify the shortcomings which continue to hamper the use of appropriate environmental technologies and to help to remove these shortcomings.

3.4

With this aim in view, attention should also not be focused solely on the candidate countries; we should certainly also take a look at the situation in the existing Member States. In this context it is clear, that in addition to the basic economic conditions, a number of other factors also play a role. In the course of its work, the EESC has been very interested to note that in the various EU Member States, where the initial situation is almost the same, there is a very different level of use of appropriate environmental technologies. In Greece, for example, almost every house now has a solar energy device mounted on the roof (for the purpose of providing hot water and, increasingly, also for the generation of electricity). The use of such devices is much less common in Italy or Spain.

3.5

Although in countries such as Poland and other CEEC similar approaches have barely got off the ground, the country is nonetheless already benefiting from the increasing use of appropriate, decentralised environmental technologies in the EU Member States. This is due to the fact that a number of wood pellet production plants have recently come into operation in Poland; the wood pellets produced are, however, destined almost exclusively for export to Sweden, Finland and Austria.

3.6

In this context, the EESC wishes to draw attention to the fact that consideration should be given to using not only standard environmental technologies but also appropriate technologies in apparently not directly related fields, since these latter technologies, too, may have a very beneficial effect on environment and regional policy.

3.7

To give another example, small cheese dairies or farm dairies, which in many EU Member States are the veritable epitome of regional specialities and regional identity, have been hitherto unknown in Poland. It was even argued by representatives of the authorities that, under EU provisions, the construction and operation of small cheese dairies would not be authorised. Such decentralised processing plants are, however, not only of importance to local agriculture and also to local craft industries but also contribute indirectly towards stabilising economic circulation at regional level and stabilising small-scale farming production, thereby also helping to preserve nature and the environment.

3.8

The abovementioned examples selected by the EESC should not give rise to the mistaken belief that it is opposed to the adoption of large-scale solutions in the field of environmental technologies. There is no doubt that, in particular cases, large-scale solutions, too, may represent appropriate solutions. When we bear in mind that half of the pollution of the Danube in Hungary is produced by the city of Budapest, we neither want to, nor can we, reject the notion of large sewage-treatment plants. The EESC is rather seeking to draw attention to the fact that it is necessary to seek solutions best suited to the respective local conditions, in order to:

avoid the misallocation of funding;

implement measures which are the most advisable in the interests of the local population and the local economy;

make progress with sustainable development through the use of appropriate environmental technologies, which can massively reduce energy and raw material inputs and help to promote growth and the creation of jobs.

3.9

The EESC would therefore to a certain extent warn against a ‘fascination’ with large projects, a phenomenon which can be observed in some quarters; this fascination may be given a further boost in the CEEC if the abovementioned increase in funding occurs in the next few years. The EESC is not seeking to stand in the way of certain measures but rather to promote other measures.

3.10

The EESC expresses its concern over the widespread lack of knowledge of appropriate technologies in the candidate countries and also over the fact that the (quite small number) of engineering offices and authorisation bodies tend to prefer large-scale solutions, even in cases where the use of such solutions is not a sound idea. This frequently substantially puts up the cost of investments, which has a clearly beneficial impact on the fees received by engineering offices. It should also be borne in mind that, in the light of the environmental objectives, people believe that they are acting ‘on the safe side’ by using ‘established’ technology.

3.11

The latter motive also frequently lies behind the action taken by administrations, ranging from that of the European Commission to that of local authorities. Furthermore, concentrating on a small number of large projects gives rise to a lower level of administrative expenses; it should be borne in mind that, in Brussels and at other levels, administrations frequently lack the staff capacity to enable them to switch to appropriate solutions, which are often on a smaller technological scale. The fact that the economic cost of concentrating on a smaller number of large projects far outweighs increased expenditure on staff brought about by adopting ‘appropriate solutions’ appears to be a matter which is of interest to no-one. A further factor to be taken into consideration is that large-scale facilities also frequently do not require a high level of aid at all since, in such cases, it is easier to find private investors than when funding has to be obtained from small and medium-sized local authorities.

3.12

In those candidate countries which used to have a strongly centralised system there is clearly the additional factor that the belief in centralised, uniform solutions is not yet, by any means, finally overcome in all quarters.

3.13

The examples described above demonstrate that the use of appropriate small- or medium-scale technologies to eliminate environmental pollution at local level makes it possible to achieve the same or, in some cases, even better results at lower cost. Such appropriate technologies:

are, in some cases, clearly more difficult to apply and more expensive at the planning stage;

are generally cheaper in the investment phase; this has the benefit of enabling more plants to be constructed for the same sum, thereby enabling more to be achieved in creating a cleaner environment;

involve much cheaper maintenance costs, thereby enabling savings in costs to be made by local populations; these ‘savings’ can be used to finance other measures which promote the economy (10);

in many cases also provide employment opportunities for local craft industries, whereas large-scale solutions can frequently only be carried out by specialist firms; this should be seen as a benefit for the local and regional economies.

3.14

Curiously enough, appropriate, cost-effective solutions tend to have a negative image.

4.   Shortcomings and barriers and how they can be removed

4.1

In the next few years the candidate countries will thus be provided with a considerable amount of aid for environmental investments. The way in which these sums are used will mainly depend on the decisions taken by the responsible authorities in these countries.

4.2

The EESC realises that the EU will not place any direct obstacles in the way of the candidate countries if they consider making use of appropriate environment technologies. This is, however, an inadequate response. In the EESC's view, the EU needs to provide active technical and financial assistance.

4.3

The EESC confirms that the prospects of increased use being made of such technologies will only really be enhanced if:

the blatant knowledge deficit as regards the opportunities provided by appropriate environmental technologies is removed by a transfer of expertise, which will need to be expanded on a very large scale;

good examples are publicised and if demonstration plants are established;

the requisite basic legal and economic conditions are created;

the financial prerequisites and possibilities are improved, possibly by setting up a special fund; and

political decision-makers at all levels are given the opportunity to have possible alternative planning measures examined to determine their feasibility and compatibility with the relevant EU (and national) laws;

the social partners and civil society organisations are involved, in order to promote popular awareness in this field.

Promotion of knowledge and awareness of appropriate environmental technologies

4.4

Decisions on investments in environmental projects will, in future, increasingly be taken at the local level. Decision-makers, and in particular those in small municipalities, who do not have their own specialist staff, almost always have to rely on external expertise in respect of planning work and the subsequent implementation of investments. Some of the engineering offices which are consulted do not have sufficient knowledge, and in some cases also do not have the will, to propose more appropriate and cheaper solutions than ‘state of the art’ solutions and solutions which are better on social or environmental grounds. In the final analysis, the services provided by engineering offices are, as a rule, paid for in accordance with the volume of building work to be carried out, rather than in accordance with whether the offices have chosen the solution which is the most favourable in the long term and is best suited to local conditions.

4.5

It also happens not infrequently that the bodies which draw up the plans also have links with construction companies or suppliers of technology. The interest of planning bodies, industry and also politicians in selecting large ‘off the peg’ projects should not be under estimated: the level of fees paid to architects and engineers provide good reasons for this, as does the interest of the construction industry in obtaining large contracts. Observations like that which a manufacturer of drainpipes was heard making to a young technician: ‘Of course, they, too, earn money from every metre’ are not isolated cases, and the likelihood of taking part in a showy, prestigious opening ceremony for a major project, with TV and press coverage, may appear to be a more attractive proposition to some local politicians than the implementation of 20, 50 or 100 small projects which attract virtually no attention.

4.6

The provision of incorrect information, either deliberately or inadvertently, happens more often than may be imagined. For example, the EESC heard of cases in which political decision-makers were clearly given to understand that, apparently, EU law authorises only the building of central sewage treatment plants to which all parts of a town or village are connected. We are, of course, dealing here with incorrect information, but such a case also provides an indication of the problems resulting from a lack of knowledge.

4.7

There is also a number of additional considerations, some of which are of a practical nature and some of a psychological nature, as set out below. It is often quite a simple matter to construct ‘state of the art’ plants; the process proceeds from the drawing board in the engineering office. Decentralised, appropriate solutions frequently require a higher level of planning input, much more detailed knowledge and frequently require a high level of determination to succeed, whilst, at the same time, they are likely to result in a smaller payment. Who wishes to embark upon a more difficult course of action, if the straightforward route is also the more lucrative route? By employing available, large-scale ‘state of the art’, solutions, planners and political decision-makers are convinced that they are acting ‘on the safe side’. People do not so readily have confidence in small-scale solutions, which are often regarded as tending to be ‘poor’, primitive and unsafe solutions. Returning to the example of Zambrow (see point 2.3.3 above), how can a simple official responsible for a sewage treatment plant come up with an idea which did not occur to engineers (or maybe the engineers did not want to come up with such a solution)?

4.8

In the EESC's view, it is particularly important to provide both political decision-makers and engineering offices with information and training. The Commission would be well advised to consider, for example, setting up independent ‘skill centres for appropriate technologies’ in the candidate states. Such centres could have the task of organising the requisite transfer of expertise and providing advice to both local-level decision-makers and civil society bodies; the proposed skill centres could therefore virtually have the role of stimulating demand for appropriate environmental technologies. If necessary, they could also play a role in the administration of special assistance funds (see point 4.16 et seq. below).

4.9

Support could be provided for the work of these skill centres by setting up a European database; the European Environment Agency could be involved in the establishment and maintenance of this database, which could contain information on cost-effective, appropriate environmental technologies which have proved their worth in the view of authorities in the EU and therefore acquire a form of ‘quality label’. The Guide to Alternative Sewage Treatment Processes issued by the European Commission's Environment DG may be regarded as a step towards the achievement of the above goal.

4.10

No method is more impressive and better at removing distrust of appropriate environmental technologies than enabling the parties concerned to inspect practical examples of such technologies. The Mayor of Sokoly (see point 2.3.2.3 above) halted his plans for connecting systems in all parts of the municipality to the central sewage treatment plant after he had been able to inspect operational alternative methods (11).

4.11

The EESC therefore takes the view that the supply and transfer of appropriate technologies must also be ‘appropriate’; in particular, these aspects must be backed up by actions designed to secure social acceptance, which is not always readily forthcoming amongst the general public, on the one hand, and local administrations, on the other hand.

4.12

With this aim in view, information, consultation and participation procedures should be introduced, involving the socio-economic players and the general public.

4.13

It might also be a valuable exercise to promote partnerships between, on the one hand, regions and/or municipalities in the EU which have gained interesting experience in the application of appropriate technologies and, on the other hand, regions and/or municipalities in the new Member States which are on the point of making similar (or indeed, different) choices. Furthermore, a degree of priority should be given to projects under the Interreg Programme and other Community programmes which promote the use of appropriate environmental technologies.

4.14

The European Action Plan for Environmental Technology, currently being elaborated, considers ways of removing barriers which impede the dissemination of EU environmental technologies. Appropriate training programmes and programmes of visits — which would be welcomed by EESC — would undoubtedly provide one way of achieving this objective. Here, too, the important issue is the form taken by such programmes. Programmes of visits are not, in all cases, bound to be geared to showing participants only the most advisable solutions. Not infrequently, purely purchasing factors play more of a central role.

Financial aspects

4.15

The Commission is rightly able to point out that in its aid arrangements it does not, in general, exclude the use of appropriate environmental technologies. Criticism may, however, be expressed over the fact that, for example, projects funded under the Cohesion Fund have to involve a minimum investment of EUR 10 million in order to be eligible for assistance. Many extremely effective small projects are thus debarred from benefiting from aid amounting up to 85 % of the investment sum.

4.16

It is clear from an analysis of aid practice pursued up to now that priority was given to the larger towns and cities. This is initially understandable, insofar as investments in these areas were able to bring about correspondingly higher reductions in environmental pollution and also in view of the fact that, for example, the Waste Water Directive makes provision, first of all, for sewage treatment in larger towns and cities. At the same time, however, there is a need to set out ideas for promoting the use of appropriate technologies as the course of future investment is now already being mapped out.

4.17

The EESC is fully aware of the fact that the Cohesion Fund does not only provide assistance for projects in cities; it also provides assistance for, for example, implementing sewage-treatment plans drawn up by associations. Whilst it is, therefore, conceivable for smaller projects to be bundled together, this does, however, seldom happen. As the decision on the provision of grants from the Cohesion Fund is taken in Brussels, the EESC recommends that applications for aid should include a clear calculation of the respective costs (investment costs and subsequent costs) of centralised, semi-centralised and decentralised technical projects. By thus encouraging applicants for aid to address, at least in general terms, alternative concepts, this could help to bring about considerable financial savings in the investment stage and also help to avoid high subsequent costs.

4.18

In Poland there is a variety of possible sources of funding for environmental measures, for which projects involving a small level of investment are also, in principle, eligible, namely: national, regional and, in some cases, local environmental conservation funds, the Ecofund (12) and other funds. In future, these funds will, however, increasingly be used to provide the requisite finance for projects co-funded by the EU. In concrete terms, this means that it may be assumed that funding arrangements for appropriate environmental technologies will not be made any easier, even though projects involving such technologies are frequently quickly amortized or do, in the long term, involve the lowest level of follow-up costs.

4.19

The EESC therefore proposes that consideration be also given to introducing a degree of earmarking of funding specifically for investments involving appropriate technologies. A given percentage of funding under the Cohesion Fund could, for example, be set aside for projects involving less than a given level of investment. Projects funded in that way could clearly no longer be approved on an individual basis by the EU Commission; the introduction of such a special fund would, however, represent a milestone in the campaign to spread ideas relating to appropriate technologies.

4.20

In connection with the drawing-up of this opinion, there also was renewed discussion in the EESC of a demand, once raised by, amongst other people, the former President of the European Court of Auditors, Prof. Bernhard Friedmann, namely that EU aid programmes should no longer provide grants, which were not repaid, but should offer (lower-interest rate or interest-free) loans (13).

4.20.1

Under the aid arrangements adopted up to now, assistance was provided for, for example, the construction of sewage-treatment plants in some municipalities, whereas aid was not forthcoming for such projects in other municipalities, on grounds of limited financial resources. This situation does, in principle, lead to injustice. In the environmental field, this means that at present (poorer) rural municipalities are slipping further and further behind (generally more affluent) towns and cities as a result of the aid arrangements pursued up to now.

4.20.2

If, on the other hand, funding was provided not in the form of grants but rather in the form of loans made available from a revolving fund, this could potentially result in the launching of an increased number of projects. There could also be an additional benefit in that parties in receipt of loans may possibly use the money in a more careful and responsible way than is the case with grants.

4.20.3

One problem which, for example in Poland, could make it difficult to restructure aid programmes in the abovementioned way is the current indebtedness of municipalities. High levels of indebtedness are already frequently impeding preparations for investments to comply with EU requirements at local level. In 2001 local government bodies in Poland were indebted to the tune of 12.3 billion Polish Zlotys (PLN) (equivalent to EUR 3 billion); in 2002 the corresponding figure was PLN15.4 billion (c. EUR 4 billion) and the trend in indebtedness is rising. This means that many municipalities have reached the legally admissible threshold for indebtedness and are unable to take on any more loans.

4.21

In the case of private investments in appropriate technologies (in fields such as energy-saving measures and the increased use of renewable sources of energy alternative building materials and building constructions), the abovementioned special revolving fund providing interest-free loans or loans at favourable rates of interest could provide an attractive alternative form of funding. Consideration should be given to linking such a fund to the proposed skill centres.

4.22

A possible way in which additional funding can be mobilised is through the participation of the private sector in the provision of public services (public-private partnerships - PPP).

4.23

Public-private partnerships do not, however, only offer opportunities - they also involve risks. The adoption of a PPP model which is not properly balanced may, for example, lead to considerable price increases. A project carried out in the Hungarian capital of Budapest, for example, involved massive price increases of over 200 % which led to considerable ill-feeling between the private operator and the city authorities.

5.   Summary

5.1

Environmental technologies have a key role to play in reducing environmental pollution and bringing about sustainable development.

5.2

With a view to avoiding the misallocation of funding, it is important to pay very careful attention to ensuring that the solution adopted is that which is best suited to the situation concerned.

5.3

Whilst the use of appropriate environmental technology may, in some cases, involve higher planning costs, considerable savings may be made in both the investment and the operational phases and more, lasting jobs may be created. The savings made in this way could be used to ease the burden on both public and private budgets. Appropriate environmental technologies are thus one of the measures which the situation now calls for.

5.4

Appropriate technologies are however often methods which are unknown and all too infrequently unused in both the candidate countries and the current EU Member States. This can be put down, in part, to the tremendous shortage of know-how and uncertainty over whether it is indeed possible to comply with the prescribed standards by using alternative technologies.

5.5

The EESC calls upon the Commission to address this issue in-depth in connection with the implementation of the action plan for promoting environmental technologies. The establishment of skill centres for appropriate technologies in the candidate countries might be one way of starting to reduce this information shortfall.

5.6

Part of the aid made available should be paid into a fund used, first and foremost, to finance smaller measures. The Cohesion Fund, which does not provide assistance to any projects involving sums of less than EUR 10 million, gives too little aid to appropriate solutions. When applications are made for assistance from the Cohesion Fund, it would be helpful if applicants were to provide information indicating why they had opted to use the proposed technology and what alternatives had been rejected.

Brussels, 31 March 2004.

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Roger BRIESCH


(1)  COM(2004) 38 final of 28.1.2004.

(2)  See the European Commission Report on environmental technology for sustainable development – COM(2002) 122 fin.

(3)  See the EESC Opinion on the Commission's Communication entitled Developing an action plan for environmental technology (COM(2003) 131 fin), CESE 1027/2003; this opinion has not yet been published in the OJ.

(4)  e.g. problems brought about by the increased use of personal forms of transport: mention should also be made of problems relating to the protection of species and environmental pollution problems such as those brought about by agri-industrial investments e.g. the establishment of enormous pig-rearing plants in Poland by the US investor Smithfield.

(5)  COM(2001) 304 final – The challenge of environmental financing in the candidate countries, page 6.

(6)  Source: EU News, Nr. 20 dated 28.5.2003, calculations made by the European Court of Auditors.

(7)  Ibid.

(8)  Thüringische Landeszeitung/Eisenach Presse of 24.10.2003.

(9)  The EESC recognises the problems associated with the use of sewage sludge as a fertiliser for agricultural land. It very often happens that a strict ban has to be imposed on this practice because of concentrations of pollutants in the sewage sludge. For further observations on the general issue of sewage sludge, see the EESC Opinion on the revision of Council Directive 86/278/EEC on the use of sewage sludge in agriculture, OJ C 014 of 16.1.2001, pages 141 to 150.

(10)  In the case of Kamieniec in the Grodzisk district of western Poland (Wielkopolskie), it is planned to construct a total of 917 individual sewage treatment plants, rather than one single central facility. It is assumed that this will bring a 60 % reduction in investment and operating costs vis-à-vis the corresponding costs of a central facility backed up by a drainage network (W. Halicki, Zielona Góra, 2003).

(11)  In connection with a project organised by the German Federal Foundation for the Environment, the German Federal Ministry of the Environment and the environmental organisation ‘Euronature’.

(12)  The Ecofund is financed on the basis of remission of debt, granted on a bilateral basis. This fund will continue in existence to 2010.

(13)  ‘Financial control – helping to promote the European venture’, an address given by Prof. Friedmann on the occasion of the award of the ‘Europäischer Bulle’ Prize 2001, offered by the European Taxpayers' Association.