Globalisation is good for the environment, according to an EU study

August 9, 2006

Brussels, 07 Aug 2006

An EU-funded project has found convergence in environmental policies across Europe, deducing that international cooperation, trans-national communication and competition are responsible.

The ENVIPOLCON project studied the development of 40 environmental policies over 30 years in 24 countries. According to the partners, from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, this provided an unprecedented picture of the overall patterns and main causes of convergence.

Following this initial research, a smaller number of cases were selected and investigated in depth. This qualitative part of the project enabled the team to see how convergence comes about, who the key players are, and which mechanisms apply under which conditions.

The team found evidence of environmental policy convergence in Europe between 1970 and 2000 - policies have become more alike (known as sigma-convergence), and have also tightened, becoming more strict (known as delta-convergence). 'Hence a 'race to the bottom' due to regulatory competition, i.e. a lowering of environmental standards by countries as a consequence of engaging in competitive markets, as often predicted in the literature, does not appear to have taken place,' says the ENVIPOLCON consortium.

The partners note that there is more convergence in the choice of policies rather than the adoption of certain policy instruments. For example, there is more convergence on contaminated sites than there is on policy instruments such as standards, taxes and liability schemes.

According to the project partners, the 'astonishing degree of convergence' can be explained with reference to three phenomena:
- international cooperation between countries and harmonisation of environmental law;
- trans-national communication within international institutions;
- regulatory competition in increasingly integrated markets.

In addition, domestic factors such as pressure from environmental problems, the presence and activities of green political parties and level of income may also contribute to policy convergence, claim the partners.

Although the EU's numerous environmental directives may lead one to expect that EU accession would have a major impact on policies, ENVIPOLCON found accession to other international environmental institutions is more likely to lead to policy convergence.

In a paper published in the European Law Journal, project partners Katharina Holzinger, Christoph Knill, and Ansgar Schäfer argue that, at EU level, there has been a transition in governance ideas. 'At the core of these changes is the abolition of traditional patterns of interventionist command-and-control regulation in favour of 'context-oriented' governance, emphasising close cooperation of public and private actors in the formulation and implementation of EU environmental policy,' they write.

'The discrepancy between political declarations in the [EU] action programmes and their actual implementation is especially obvious with respect to economic instruments. However, the introduction of context-oriented instruments has increased relatively little, as well, measured on the political demands [...]. The observation is not new that, at the state level, economic instruments in environmental policy are much discussed, but seldom put into practice,' the paper reads.

While international harmonisation was found to play the greatest role in convergence, trans-national communication was found to be almost as effective. 'This is surprising, as intuitively one might have expected harmonisation to be a more powerful mechanism of convergence than communication,' say the project partners. Communication was however found to have more of an impact on non-obligatory policies - those not subject to a binding international law.

The partners explain how different countries use communication to develop their policy ideas: 'The Netherlands were shown in various instances to initiate trans-national discussion and promote a policy model. France, by contrast, was less prone to use international institutions or networks as a platform for promoting its own ideas and it appeared resistant to such (foreign) promotion. Hungary and, outside the EU, Mexico responded rather quickly to transnational as well as bilateral stimuli mainly as a means for gaining international legitimacy,' according to the paper

One of the most important findings from the project, as far as the partners are concerned, is that globalisation drives environmental protection. The growing similarity of environmental policies coincides with a constant strengthening of environmental standards over time. This development is essentially the result of growing international institutional links between nation states.

Further information

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2006
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