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The Environment Council meets formally four times a year. Additionally, there are two informal meetings. The council is formed by EU ministers for the environment.
The Single Act, which came into force in 1987, specifically made environmental policy an area of Community competence. Under Article 174 of the EC Treaty, as amended in 1992 by the Maastricht Treaty and in 1997 by the Treaty of Amsterdam, the European Union seeks to:
At the beginning of 2000, the European Commission submitted its White Paper on environmental liability, which introduced the "polluter-pays" principle. The aim was to formulate a Community regulation on environmental damage. National legislation is often based on the idea that the environment is a common good, and that society is therefore collectively responsible.
The Commission White Paper adopts a different approach, whereby the party responsible for the damage must meet the costs. The result was a draft directive on environmental liability in January 2002, focusing both on preventing and remedying damage caused to the environment. This same principle is an important aspect of the Sixth Action Programme for the Environment, Environment 2010: our future, our choice (2001-2010), adopted by the Council in June 2001.
In the private sector the Commission wishes to cooperate with enterprises and consumers in order to promote environmentally friendly production and consumption. The instruments used to achieve this aim include legal measures on environmental liability, fiscal measures, as well as more information for consumers who expect enterprises to behave in an environmentally friendly manner. With the "Greening the Market" formula (making the market greener and ecologically friendlier, the Commission emphasises that positive (ecological) behaviour deserves to be rewarded.
Over the years, the European Union has adopted a range of directives on the environment which limit toxic emissions from private cars, heavy-duty lorries and industry as well as waste water discharge.
The energy sector, meanwhile, should strive primarily to improve energy efficiency and formulate strategic technological development programmes seeking to limit the use of fossil fuels with high carbon content and stimulate the use of sustainable sources of energy. The council has agreed to adopt national and Community measures wherever necessary in order to restrict as far as possible the environmental consequences of the liberalisation of the electricity and gas markets.
In the agriculture sector the aim is to strike a better balance between agriculture, rural development and natural resources. Specific objectives include reducing the nitrate content of groundwater and restricting the use of pesticides. In November 1999, the council gave the go-ahead to a strategy seeking to integrate environmental requirements into the Common Agricultural Policy by means of reforms undertaken as part of Agenda 2000.
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