It's not easy being green
Publication date: 06 July 2009
What does the future hold for the Commission's flagship environment event?
To misuse the title of a recent bestseller on climate change, Green Week 2009 was hot, crowded but not flat. The four-day conference on climate change was intense, with a record number of delegates. But the European Commission's reflections on how Green Week should progress will first require some clarity about what the event is really for.
Now in its ninth year, Green Week is the flagship public event of the Commission's environment department. On numbers alone, the event was a success – maybe even a victim of its own success, suggested one Commission official. Visitors were turned away from the grey conference rooms of the Charlemagne building in Brussels and crowds built up around the tables full of organic juices and European cheeses.
The Commission had expected 3,500 guests at the free event, but more than 4,500 registered – more than ten times the number that can be accommodated in the Charlemagne's largest room.
The audience included environmental specialists, green campaigners, business people, students and some members of the public with no particular axe to grind. Regrets were expressed at the limited presence of officials from other Commission departments, MEPs and business people. But “it's a good opportunity and we can't ask for more,” said Michael Delle Selve, manning a stand for the European Container Glass Federation.
Over at the European Landowners' Organisation, Darius Movaghar said that the event – “a noble gesture from the EU” – had provided a lot of exposure. “You have to be realistic about events like this and try to get as much out as you can,” he added. A Commission official from the external relations department said the event was “well-attended and well-organised”.
But not everyone with an interest in the environment is enthused by Green Week. Greenpeace no longer has a stand (although one of their representatives, Mark Breddy, did speak at an event). Breddy says that the organisation decided “there wasn't much added value in being so involved”. He adds: “Green Week was slowly turning into a public relations exercise for the European Commission and we didn't see why we should have a major role in that.”
This observation demonstrates the ambiguity of the event: is it to explain the Commission's environment policy to a new audience, or a chance for environment specialists to compare notes? Probably both. On offer were events ranging from creating a ‘climate-friendly society' by 2050 to a session on the intricacies of auctioning allowances under the European Emissions Trading System.
Green Week used to have bigger ambitions. When it was launched in 2001 by Margot Wallström, then the European commissioner for the environment, the purpose was to increase the visibility of the EU's environment policy. Although the first event was targeted at policymakers, there were attempts to attract the public. The first Green Week included a youth council of environment ministers and competitions in painting, drawing and other creative arts. There was even more public involvement the following year: 22,000 people across 12 member states took part in events ranging from exhibitions to nature walks.
In 2003, the Commission saw Green Week as a way to get citizens to be a bit greener on a daily basis. But when Stavros Dimas took over the environment portfolio in 2005, Green Week settled back into being a Brussels event for policymakers.
The Commission now defines it as a “forum for dialogue and for sharing experience, expertise and best practice in protecting the environment”.
Tony Long, head of WWF's European policy office, has noticed that Green Week “has become like a trade fair” and questions whether this is appropriate in a public building. He would like to see an event giving green groups and businesses the chance to “create new and unusual coalitions” on the environment.
Biodiversity will be the topic for Green Week next year, when it will be confirmed that the EU has failed to meet its own target of halting biodiversity loss by 2010 compared to 2000. Some expect this will be less popular than climate change in 2009 (the year of the United Nations Copenhagen conference).
One idea is to involve the winner of the EU's ‘green capital' award. Next year Stockholm will become the EU's first-ever green capital (with Hamburg to follow in 2011). Stockholm will use its year in the spotlight to showcase its work on green district heating, cleaner vehicles and public transport. Learning lessons from Stockholm's experiences in these areas could all feature in Green Week, suggests Linda Persson, EU policy advisor for the Swedish city. She would like to see more activities in Green Week focused on “hands-on experience” because “going from words to action is what everyone keeps talking about”.
But not everyone is convinced that officially-sponsored events are the best way for the Commission to engage with civil society. According to Breddy at Greenpeace: “The best way for them [the Commission] to engage with us is to do better in terms of policy and to make sure they are not excessively influenced by corporate interests.”
Source: European Voice