During the late 1980s, public consciousness about environmental threats grew rapidly. Large-scale environmental disasters such as the Chernobyl catastrophe focused attention on the need for higher levels of environmental protection. Issues such as the holes in the ozone layer over the poles and global warming prompted an acceleration in European environmental policy-making and institution-building.
However, EU action on the environment can be traced back even earlier. EU financial assistance for nature conservation was first made available in the early 1980s, following initiatives dating back to the 1970s. From 1972, measures to limit pollution and improve waste management were adopted. Then, 1979 saw the adoption of the Birds Directive, hailed by Birdlife International as 'one of the soundest pieces of bird conservation legislation worldwide'. The directive called for co-financing for the management of Special Protection Areas dedicated to birdlife preservation.
This recognition of the importance of providing financial assistance for habitat protection was taken forward in 1982 when the European Parliament succeeded in introducing a small budget line for nature conservation, enabling financing of a dozen or so projects. This funding was renewed in 1983 and provided support for small-scale, preparatory projects that nevertheless had a significant impact. In respect of the later ACE Regulations (Action Communautaire pour l'Environnement or EU Actions for the Environment), this support was known as pre-ACE.
ACE - Action Communautaire pour l'Environnement
From the mid-1980s, two regulations broadened the scope of EU assistance for the environment by establishing the ACE financial instrument. Firstly, Regulation No 1872/84 ran from July 1984 to June 1987 and opened the door for the EU to grant financial support to projects in three fields:
- Development of new clean technologies;
- Development of new techniques for measuring and monitoring the natural environment; and
- Help to protect habitats of endangered species of particular importance to the EU, as defined by Directive 79/409/EEC. The first regulation was superseded by Regulation No 2242/87 - ACE II - which ran until July 1991. Its scope was widened to include the financing of demonstration projects in the fields of waste, contaminated site restoration and remedial action for land damaged by fire, erosion and desertification.
In all, the ACE programme funded 53 nature protection and 55 clean technology projects. The total cost of these projects during the lifetime of the programme (1984-1991) was ECU 98 million, with the EU providing ECU 41 million, or 44.5% of the total cost. In addition, a different budget line was made available from 1988 onwards for 'urgent actions for endangered species'. It was not supported by a regulation but was included in the annual budget of the Commission by the European Parliament. In total, 50 projects were financed with assistance totalling €3 million under this budget.
MEDSPA and NORSPA
Running concurrently with ACE were two programmes supporting environmental projects in two specific regions: MEDSPA (Mediterranean), and NORSPA (Northern European maritime regions). MEDSPA ran from 1986 to 1991, supporting 198 projects to the tune of ECU 38 million. Projects financed covered water resources, prevention of water pollution, waste disposal and - more than 25% of supported projects - conservation of habitats and endangered species.
NORSPA had a shorter life, running from 1989 to 1991. It was a special fund set up in response to particular concerns about the Northern European maritime regions, and provided ECU 16 million in funding for 38 projects. It prioritised conservation of marine life and integrated management of biotopes, with a particular emphasis on international cooperation and coordination. Projects financed included a programme for the return of large migratory species such as salmon to the Rhine, which received nearly ECU 5 million, and re-colonisation of eelgrass in shallow coastal waters around Denmark (EU funding of ECU 252,500).
The ACNAT interlude
As the ACE programme concluded in 1991, a separate fund for nature, Actions by the EU for Nature (Council Regulation 3907/91, known as ACNAT), was adopted. This was designed to help support the implementation of the newly adopted Habitats Directive in May 1992 at a time when the EU was expanding its competence in the field of habitat conservation. The intention of ACNAT was that actions for bird species and sites could continue to receive support in the context of the Birds Directive and in addition funds would be made available for the conservation of other endangered species and habitats.
In the event, however, ACNAT was quickly superseded by the adoption of a new, all-encompassing environment fund that targeted five main priority fields. With this fund, and its first-phase budget of ECU 400 million, LIFE I (Council Regulation 1973/92) was born.
The European Investment Bank manages two financial instruments which were introduced under the LIFE 2014-2020 Regulation: the Natural Capital Financing Facility (NCFF) and Private Finance for Energy Efficiency (PF4EE) instrument.
The LIFE programme has been supporting projects since 1992.
The budget of the LIFE Programme increased to €5.4 billion between 2021 and 2027.
The new LIFE programme covers the following areas:
- Nature and biodiversity
- Circular economy and quality of life
- Climate change mitigation and adaptation
- Clean energy transition.
See the Report on the Mid-term Evaluation of the Programme for Environment and Climate Action (LIFE) accessible in the Links section.
The previous LIFE programme, with a budget of €3.4 billion, was divided into two sub-programmes, one for environment (representing 75% of the overall financial envelope) and one for climate action (representing 25% of the envelope). During this programming period the new category "Integrated projects" was introduced. These projects support authorities in EU Member States to implement environmental and climate plans, programmes and strategies developed at regional, multi-regional or national level.
LIFE+ ran for 7 years with an increased budget of €2.143 billion. It was split into 3 categories: LIFE+ Nature and Biodiversity, which continued and extended the former LIFE-Nature programme; LIFE+ Environment Policy and Governance which continued and extended the former LIFE Environment programme; and LIFE+ Information and Communication, a new component to co-finance projects relating to communication and awareness raising campaigns.
LIFE III ran for 5 years with an increased budget of €640 million. The scope of the programme from LIFE II was continued, and new accompanying measures were introduced to encourage more multinational projects and networking amongst projects.
LIFE II was split into 3 categories – LIFE-Nature dedicated to nature and conservation actions, LIFE-Environment dedicated to actions to implement EU environment policy and legislation, and LIFE-Third countries which addressed actions in countries on the shores of the Mediterranean and Baltic seas. The programme’s budget was increased to ECU 450 million for the second phase.
LIFE I funded a total of 731 projects focusing on: promotion of sustainable development and quality of the environment; protection of habitats and of nature; administrative structures and environment services; education, training and information; and actions in countries outside the EU.