The European Union has agreed more than 200 legal acts in the environmental policy field and is a highly developed policy area. EU legislation covers all environmental sectors, including water, air, nature, waste, noise, and chemicals.
EU environmental policy has produced changes in practice and improvements in the quality of the environment across the member states and regions of the EU. Northern Ireland is no different. In fact, it is broadly accepted that without EU law, environmental law in Northern Ireland would be seriously lagging behind.
EU environmental policy is also credited with being economically advantageous to Northern Ireland. A study by Friends of the Earth notes that meeting the current EU target set in the Waste Framework Directive of 50 per cent for recycling/composting of total municipal waste by 2020, rising to 55 per cent by 2025, will increase total recycling from 10.9 million tonnes in 2006 to 17 million tonnes in 2025. This equates to approximately 1,150 new jobs in Northern Ireland.
In relative terms, however, Northern Ireland has the least protected environment in the UK and Ireland according to Friends of the Earth. The absence of an independent Northern Ireland Environmental Protection Agency has long been blamed for poor environmental governance in the region. Differences between the main political parties has prevented the creation of such a body.
Northern Ireland has also experienced delays and difficulties in transposing EU law. Since the devolution of powers following the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Department of the Environment (Northern Ireland) are responsible for ensuring that EU environmental legislation is implemented at the regional level. If the Northern Ireland authorities fail to implement legislation in a timely and accurate manner, the European Commission may issue infraction proceedings and possibly fines against the UK for which the Northern Ireland administration is liable.