Downsized European Green Products Policy Emerges

BRUSSELS, Belgium, June 18, 2003 (ENS) - The European Commission today issued proposals to create an EU integrated product policy (IPP) in a communication to the European Parliament and Council of Ministers. Both in rhetoric and content, the plan is a pale shadow of what might have been. Few concrete initiatives have survived the four year preparatory process.

When it first appeared on the European political agenda in 1998, the integrated product policy had a revolutionary air. A wave of tax differentiation in favor of "greener" products was proposed. Greater producer responsibility for end-of-life products, European Union product panels, and wider use of deposit-refund schemes for consumer products were also mentioned.

None of these remains in today's communication.

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Consumer products like this mobile phone will be governed by the integrated product policy. (Photos by Ian Britton courtesy Freefoto)
Likewise, earlier grand objectives, such as contributing to a "factor X" improvement in resource productivity or changing unsustainable production and consumption patterns, have all disappeared.

The overall aim of integrated product policy is now presented as simply to "reduce the environmental impacts from products throughout their life-cycle." No overall targets are included in the proposals.

Consistent business opposition to an interventionist integrated product policy is behind the change. Firms argued from the outset that policies with any bite would undermine innovation and conflict with global trade rules.

Industry association Unice insisted as long ago as 1998 that business, not government, should take the leading role in improving product environmental performance.

In the communication's latter drafting stages, the Commission's internal market, enterprise and other departments finally forced EU environment commissioner Margot Wallstrom to drop key proposals such as tax breaks for green products.

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European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstom (Photo courtesy European Commission)
Wallstrom today admitted that finalizing the paper had been a "bumpy road."

In the last few weeks, the text has been further modified to stress the integrated product policy's compatibility with the EU's single market and world trade rules.

"In principle," it now says, "IPP will complement current legislation by triggering, on a voluntary basis, further improvements in those products whose characteristics do not necessarily require legislation."

A new "key principle" has been added of "working with the market." The communication now commits to "harnessing, wherever possible, a market driven approach, within which competitiveness concerns are integrated."

Just to be crystal clear, it now also promises that "full account will be taken of the Community's obligations under international law, particularly as regards trade."

In the absence of legislative or tax proposals to set the "framework conditions" for product greening, the highest profile component of the integrated product policy at the EU level for the next couple of years or so is likely to be a proposed series of voluntary, product specific pilot projects.

The Commission is seeking suggestions before the end of October for specific projects. Each is expected to last about 12 months and involve wide stakeholder input to analyze environmental impacts, analyze options to reduce these impacts, identify the most feasible of these options, and agree and then introduce implementation plans.

Alongside the projects, the communication promises the development of a methodology to identify "products with the greatest potential for environmental improvement." It will take until 2007, it says, to identify a first set and "the beginning of action to tackle them."

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These office products will come under the integrated product policy.
The Commission reiterates that internalizing environmental externalities into product prices remains its "long term goal." The use of fiscal measures will continue to be promoted and encouraged, it says.

In 2005, the communication says, the Commission will publish a discussion document on ways to promote integrated product policy implementation in companies. The paper could, "if appropriate," include "general obligations" for specific products. It will also look at how to ensure public communication of information on products' environmental performance.

On green procurement, the communication promises a survey of member state practices this year. It encourages member states to draw up action programs by 2006, including "ambitious" three year targets.

A practical handbook for public authorities will be published this year, backed by a product group database and a new website in 2004.

The scope of existing ecolabels and energy labels "will be gradually expanded," the communication promises. The Commission will take a decision by the end of 2005 on whether the European Union should stimulate related environmental product declarations.

Guidelines on how to deal with product issues within the EU's environmental management standard should be issued by the end of 2004.

In 2005 the Commssion should publish a "practical handbook" on best practice with life-cycle assessment.

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{Published in cooperation with ENDS Environment Daily, Europe's choice for environmental news. Environmental Data Services Ltd, London. Email: envdaily@ends.co.uk}