Official Journal of the European Union

C 62/226

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a Programme for the Environment and Climate Action (LIFE) and repealing Regulation (EU) No 1293/2013’

(COM(2018) 385 final — 2018/209 (COD))

(2019/C 62/36)




European Parliament, 14.6.2018


Council, 2.7.2018

Legal basis

Articles 192(1) and 304 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union



Plenary Assembly decision




Section responsible

Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment

Adopted in section


Adopted at plenary


Plenary session No


Outcome of vote



1.   Conclusions and recommendations


Nature and the environment in the EU are undergoing a major crisis. In the view of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), the LIFE programme (with its wholly insufficient level of funding) is an inadequate response to this contemporary environmental crisis and will be unable to have any sort of substantial impact. The Committee does however explicitly welcome the continuation of the programme in general.


In addition to significantly increasing the budget for the LIFE programme, there needs to be much more consistency between all EU policies. The EESC has already repeatedly criticised this inconsistency, which has a negative impact on nature and the environment, but nothing has changed.


In recent decades, the mainstreaming approach favoured by the Commission has proved to be unsuited to the funding of biodiversity protection, and the EESC therefore reiterates its proposal that LIFE should be developed into a real financing facility for Natura 2000.


In the new funding period, the mainstreaming approach could potentially work for climate protection action, since at least 25 % of EU funds will be earmarked for climate-related measures.


In particular, the EESC welcomes the fact that the new LIFE programme can provide financial support to efforts to develop and implement bottom-up initiatives for innovative, decentralised and sustainable economic models.


The EESC welcomes the fact that the new LIFE Regulation is less restrictive and, among other things, enables projects to be funded in full. It also welcomes the fact that organisations that are important to the further development and implementation of European environmental policy are able to be supported.

2.   Background


The Commission has set out its proposals for medium-term financial planning for the period 2021-2027. The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU, and the setting of new priorities, mean that these proposals will have a significant impact on EU funding policy, particularly on certain programme areas.


For example, the current funding structure of the multiannual financial framework features 58 different programmes; this will be cut to 37.


The LIFE programme is not affected by this structural change: it will continue to be an autonomous programme with its own budget heading, promoting the development and implementation of innovative solutions to environmental and climate issues such as the energy transition. In the next EU budget, LIFE will have EUR 5,45 billion of its own resources.

3.   General comments


In the past, the EESC has always regarded the LIFE programme as a valuable element in European nature and environmental policy, and therefore welcomes its continuation as a standalone programme in the 2021-2027 funding period.


The EESC notes, in general, that nature and the environment in the EU are undergoing a major crisis. This is in part because the EU’s funding programmes for nature and environmental protection are far too poorly resourced; another point of criticism is that there is not enough consistency between the EU’s various sectoral programmes. The EESC strongly urges the Commission and the Council to address these shortcomings, which the Committee has already criticised on a number of occasions. If they do not, the LIFE programme — which undoubtedly funds some very good projects — will remain mere tokenism.


The EESC sees a serious conflict between the policy priorities set in statements, strategies, concepts and legislation, on the one hand, and the way these supposed policy priorities are embedded in the budget, on the other. In essence, the budget reveals the truth about what the policy priorities actually are.


The EESC most recently commented on LIFE in its opinion on the mid-term evaluation of the LIFE programme (1), in which it made various proposals for revamping the programme that have unfortunately not been taken into account in the new proposal for a Regulation; these proposals related, inter alia, to the scope of and financial resources for LIFE.

Financial resources for LIFE


Just looking at the appropriations for the new ‘clean energy transition’ subprogramme puts into perspective the initially impressive-sounding increase in the LIFE programme’s budget from EUR 3,45 billion (for the 2014-2020 funding period) to EUR 5,45 billion (for the 2021-2027 period). It should also be borne in mind that around EUR 2,6 billion — i.e. half of the total — is made up of commitment appropriations that, under current plans, will not be able to be spent until after 2027.


In the current programming period, ‘climate action’ has a budget of EUR 864 million; for the new period this will be EUR 1,95 billion, including EUR 1 billion for the new ‘clean energy transition’ subprogramme, which is currently funded under Horizon 2020. This means that the actual increase for the previous programme’s ‘climate action’ strand is too low, at around EUR 100 million (and this over seven years).


In the current funding period, EUR 2,59 billion is available for ‘environment and resource efficiency’, of which EUR 1,15 billion is allocated to biodiversity. This is increased significantly for the new funding period, to EUR 2,15 billion (an increase of nearly 100 %), but this figure too needs to be put into perspective.


As the Commission quite rightly states in recital 14, ‘one of the main underlying causes for insufficient implementation of Union nature legislation and of the biodiversity strategy is the lack of adequate financing’. The European Court of Auditors specifically underlined the underfunding of biodiversity protection in its special report on Natura 2000 (2).


The planned increase does not even come close to solving this problem. Quite the opposite — the EESC is very concerned about the severe underfunding of the Natura 2000 network in particular, which is a crucial part of European biodiversity protection. This underfunding will, in the EESC’s estimation, get even worse in the 2021-2027 funding period, due to the cuts in resources for the EAFRD programme and for regional development.


Instead of increasing the budget for the LIFE programme, as the EESC considers necessary, the Commission is proposing to step up the mainstreaming approach — i.e. funding from other budget headings. The EESC acknowledges that mainstreaming can work if appropriate earmarked funding is available elsewhere, and would refer in particular here to climate protection, due among other things to the fact that the Commission has proposed that at least 25 % of the EU budget should be spent on climate-related measures (3).


In the field of biodiversity protection, however, the mainstreaming approach of funding the Natura 2000 network primarily via the EU’s regional development funds and the second pillar of the Common Agricultural Policy has been a miserable failure. The EESC therefore advocated, in its opinion of 23 February 2017 on the mid-term review of the LIFE programme (4), that LIFE ‘should be made the main instrument for funding the Natura 2000 network’. It would draw attention to this opinion (5) and others in this connection, and continues to call for the LIFE programme to be supplemented with appropriately earmarked funds. Another proposal for achieving ambitious environmental objectives could consist in rerouting any outstanding balances in cases of non-compliance under the CAP to measures to conserve biological diversity.


Taking the calculations used in Germany to determine funding for implementing Natura 2000 and extrapolating them to the EU-28 results in an estimated funding requirement of up to EUR 21 billion a year (6). Increasing LIFE’s budget for biodiversity/nature conservation by EUR 1 billion for a seven-year period is therefore no more than a drop in the ocean.


Moreover, a significant proportion of the aforementioned costs for the Natura 2000 network have to be used for the long-term maintenance and management of the over 27 000 Natura 2000 sites. But even under the new proposal, LIFE offers limited options for funding long-term maintenance costs in Natura 2000 sites, and in the EESC’s opinion therefore cannot adequately contribute to solving the EU’s biodiversity crisis, contrary to the requirements set out in recital 14.


The EESC is thus extremely disappointed that its suggestion has not been taken on board. The Commission does explain in its proposal that the impact assessment considered how LIFE ‘could play a stronger role in the implementation of the Union nature and biodiversity policy. […] [T]he option for a large shared management fund under LIFE was considered inefficient […]’, but it is not apparent to the EESC how the gross underfunding of Natura 2000 is to be solved. Moreover, the EESC has never advocated a shared management fund, as such a fund would indeed be difficult to manage efficiently. Instead, it has recommended completely redesigning LIFE (as the European Environmental Finance Instrument) and then using it to fund the EU’s commitments in terms of implementing the relevant nature directives.


Furthermore, recital 18 states that in future LIFE should also support projects which contribute to the implementation of the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC). The EESC welcomes this in principle, but notes that unless the budget is further increased it will lead to further underfunding of the other important subprogrammes. The EESC has the same reservation concerning the support referred to in recital 19 for projects to implement the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC).


The EESC is surprised that the proposed LIFE Regulation refers to the pioneering concept of ‘green infrastructure’ only once, and only in passing. Given that the multiannual financial framework 2021-2027 does not mention the TEN-G funding programme for ‘green infrastructure’ proposed in the Commission’s communication (7) of 6 May 2013, the EESC recommends that LIFE — with a substantially higher budget — should also specifically support green infrastructure projects.


It is already becoming clear that the 2020 biodiversity protection targets agreed within the EU will not be met. If even fewer resources are available for the 2021-2027 financial period, there is a danger that the EU will be unable to make any significant improvements even by 2030. This major biodiversity crisis makes it necessary to increase funding for LIFE massively. The EESC therefore urges the Council and the European Parliament to discuss and take account of the ideas it has put forward in the ongoing debate on the medium-term financial plan.

4.   Specific comments


In the explanatory memorandum to the proposal for a Regulation, the Commission repeatedly emphasises the small scale of the projects supported, which distinguishes LIFE from, for example, Horizon Europe. It states that LIFE ‘help[s] citizens to take action on the climate and for their communities’. In the EESC’s view, exactly this approach of promoting bottom-up action by civil society stakeholders is hugely important and should be supported.


It should, however, cover more than just the elements indicated by the Commission in recitals 8 and 10. Projects to ‘facilitate the uptake of already available technology’ are certainly to be welcomed, but the role of ‘citizens’ goes far beyond implementing practices that have already been developed.


After all, the European Innovation Council mentioned in the proposal is not the only body that can, as the Commission puts it, ‘provide support’ to develop, ‘scale up and commercialise new breakthrough ideas’.


For example, SMEs, small and large civic initiative groups, trade unions, private individuals and municipalities can do this as well. Indeed, they are already developing (sometimes very simple) ideas, practices and innovative applied technologies that, in some cases, neither policy-makers/public authorities nor established businesses were willing or able to conceive.


LIFE should help to offer support precisely for these efforts, especially given that it is often very difficult for these less established players to find support for innovation.


This can be illustrated with two examples that fit in well with the new ‘clean energy transition’ subprogramme:


It is well known that the development of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles is an important task that also needs to be taken on at policy level. Citizens’ initiatives are starting to consider making direct, decentralised use of e.g. electricity generated by wind-power cooperatives to run community-operated charging stations or to provide private charging stations in homes, residential areas and workplaces. The extensive experience that has now been gained with ‘solar filling stations’ (i.e. carports fitted with PV systems) could thus be translated to wind farms. This would create completely new participation opportunities for civil society stakeholders, which would be of significance both for regional economic development and for acceptance of the new supply structure that needs to be put in place (8). It could also breathe new life into the EU’s ambition of ‘putting citizens at the heart of the energy transition’. However, such new conceptual approaches are not generally developed by the established energy supply operators. They need initial support, particularly since in many cases the legal framework and detailed technical issues require in-depth examination. LIFE absolutely must provide support for such innovations that are not yet ‘market-ready’.


The same applies to an innovative approach that was developed in the town of Łapy in Podlaskie, Poland, but which cannot be implemented because they have simply not been able to find the funds for the necessary in-depth investigations. Like many other municipalities in central and eastern Europe, the town suffers from high emissions levels caused by coal-fired communal district heating systems. It has been calculated that replacing coal with renewable energy sources (e.g. biomass) or less polluting sources (such as gas) would increase consumer prices, which would not be socially acceptable. It is quite probable that building and running a municipal wind farm, and converting the generated electricity into heat using heat pumps, would result in lower heating costs, but the municipality does not have the resources for the necessary preliminary technical and legal studies that are absolutely crucial for implementing a model project of this kind, and to date no support has been forthcoming from elsewhere.


The EESC therefore welcomes the fact that the ‘clean energy transition’ subprogramme sets a new focal point within the climate action strand of the LIFE programme, which, with EUR 1 billion for the period 2012-2027, will encompass almost 20 % of the overall budget of EUR 5,45 billion.


In the EESC’s view, the application and implementation procedures chosen for the LIFE programme must be as simple as possible. It welcomes the Commission’s constant efforts to further reduce red tape in project application and implementation.


The new LIFE Regulation is much less restrictive than the current programme, giving the Commission considerably more flexibility in the selection and funding of projects. In the EESC’s view, this will result in significantly more efficient use of resources.


Good, innovative projects should not fail simply because the applicant might not have adequate co-financing options. The EESC is pleased to note that the new LIFE Regulation no longer includes an article ruling out full financing of projects (see Article 20 of the old Regulation).


The EESC also welcomes the fact that the LIFE programme is constantly evolving, and that the catalytic role played by LIFE and the projects it funds is now highlighted. However, it is not clear to the EESC what form this catalytic role is expected to take in practice.


The EESC can well imagine that the Commission could select a certain number of particularly innovative projects that are receiving funding and ask the project coordinators to undertake a smaller-scale follow-up project describing in more detail what factors were especially responsible for the success or failure of the project. At the moment, many innovative ideas (see point 3.8) fail due to red tape or an obstructive — or even non-existent — legal framework. In order for the policy side to be able to learn and draw conclusions from LIFE-supported projects, it is important to understand the success and failure factors in detail.


Recital 17 states that public awareness about air pollution is high and that ‘citizens expect authorities to act’. This is true, and LIFE will also be able to help with this in future, if relevant information gained from the projects is implemented in practical policy.


What LIFE cannot and must not do is take on a kind of ‘clean-up’ role to compensate for public authorities’ failure to act. Air quality in Europe could already have been improved significantly if, for example, (a) the limit values set previously had been consistently complied with, (b) the promised internalisation of external costs had been consistently enforced, and (c) environmentally harmful subsidies had been abolished, as has been promised for years.


Recital 27 therefore quite rightly also focuses on enforcement aspects, including monitoring and permitting processes and the quality of the environmental inspection and law enforcement mechanisms. Given their contribution to these objectives, the European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law (IMPEL), the European Network of Prosecutors for the Environment (ENPE) and the European Union Forum of Judges for the Environment (EUFJE) could also, under Article 12 of the proposal, be awarded grants — i.e. get official support — ‘without a call for proposals’. The EESC welcomes such grants, and stresses the importance of ensuring that other key stakeholders in society that can advance EU environmental policy can also be supported with relatively little red tape, as provided for in Article 10(5) of the proposal.

Brussels, 18 October 2018.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee


(1)  OJ C 173, 31.5.2017, p. 7.

(2)  European Court of Auditors (2017): Special Report No 1/2017: ‘More efforts needed to implement the Natura 2000 network to its full potential’.

(3)  The EESC considers this to be too low still, and has called for 40 % (EESC opinion on the European Finance-Climate Pact) (see page 8 of this Official Journal).

(4)  OJ C 173, 31.5.2017, p. 7.

(5)  See EESC opinion NAT/681 on the biodiversity policy of the EU (OJ C 487, 28.12.2016, p. 14).

(6)  See EESC opinion (OJ C 129, 11.4.2018, p. 90).

(7)  COM(2013) 249 final.

(8)  EESC opinion on ‘The effects of a new carbon-free, decentralised and digitalised energy supply structure’ (OJ C 367, 10.10.2018, p. 1).