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(photo credit: Bloomberg)
Helping small- and medium-seized companies use energy and resources efficiently is the aim of a recently published Commission Communication. It does this by providing a legal framework and measures that reinforce existing policies and initiatives in line with the particular characteristics of smaller companies.
To this end, the Communication proposes to create a program to help small- and medium-sized companies implement European environmental legislation. It is hoped the program will channel financial resources towards support networks, simplify access to environmental management systems and promote greater awareness of environmental issues among these companies.
European Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas said: "To successfully tackle the environmental challenges we face and to achieve our targets on greenhouse emissions, renewable energy and energy efficiency, all European companies must be on board. Small- and medium-sized companies are an integral part of Europe's economy and it is therefore vital that they play their part in making the European economy more sustainable."
Small- and medium-sized companies and the environment
Individual small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) employ less than 250 people, but the European Union's 23 million SMEs as a whole represent about 99% of all EU enterprises and 57% of the Union's total economic added value. Being responsible for such a large percentage of the EU economy's turnover, the impact of SMEs on the environment is significant.
Many companies are not aware of the impact their activities have on the environment and a majority actually think their activities have little or no impact. SMEs also tend to believe that they are complying with legislation unless told otherwise. Under such circumstances, the activities of SMEs may pose significant health and safety risks to workers as well as a threat to the environment.
By not integrating environmental considerations into their economic activities, SMEs also could lose out on the economic benefits presented by better environmental management and eco-innovation.
Environmental Compliance Assistance Program
The Environmental Compliance Assistance Program proposed by the Commission is a set of measures that aim to help SMEs minimize the environmental impact of their activities and to facilitate compliance with existing legislation. The program intends to reduce the burden of compliance by designing instruments and policies to integrate environmental concerns into the core of SME activities.
The measures presented in the Communication also cover the dissemination of information specifically targeted for SMEs, promoting support networks, and training activities that build local environmental expertise. Funding for the program's measures will come from LIFE+ funds (â‚¬5 million for 2007-13) with additional funds to be made available through the Competitiveness and Innovation framework Program (CIP) and the Structural Funds.
Several measures are already planned for 2007. A Web site providing information on EU environmental policy for SMEs is now available in seven languages and guides on energy efficiency, air emissions, soil and water and waste are planned. A handbook on funding opportunities will also be published.
The new network replacing the Euro Info Centre Network in support of business and innovation will participate in implementing the Program from 2008. This and other SME support networks could play an important role in helping SMEs translate European environmental policies into operational measures.
Water saving potential as a start
While Europe is by and large considered as having adequate water resources, water scarcity is an increasingly frequent phenomenon in the European Union. The long-term imbalance resulting from water demand in excess of available water resources is no longer uncommon, as stated in the Green Paper on adaptation to climate change presented by the Commission in June 2007. The Commission expects further deterioration of the water situation in Europe if temperatures keep rising and no clear mitigation strategy is adopted.
A study commissioned by the Commission estimates that water efficiency could be improved by nearly 40% through technological improvements alone and that changes in human behavior or production patterns could increase such savings further. In a business as usual scenario it is estimated that water consumption by the public, industry and agriculture would increase by 16% by 2030. Conversely, the use of water-saving technologies and irrigation management in the industrial and agricultural sectors could reduce excesses by as much as 43% while water efficiency measures could decrease water wastage by up to a third.
In the Communication on Water Scarcity and Droughts adopted in July 2007, the Commission identified an initial set of policy options to be taken at European, national and regional levels to address water scarcity within the Union. This set of proposed policies aims to move the EU towards a water-efficient and water-saving economy.
At the heart of such policy options is the need to put the right price on water with the "user pays" principle becoming the rule regardless of from where water is taken. To achieve greater water savings and water efficiency, substantial changes will need to be made on how water is channeled to users and how it is used. On a larger scale, a proper allocation of water use between economic sectors should be considered as should the integration of water saving in all policy decisions.
Effective water pricing and cost-effective measures and water sustainability and sustainable land use must also become an integral part of policy making in areas such as agriculture and tourism where all activities are adapted to the amount of water available locally.
The author is head of the International Department at the Joseph Shem-Tov Law firm.