The first major political actions from the EU within the field of environment were taken in the 1970’s, when the pollution and waste management initiatives were introduced. During the 1980’s, global public awareness of environmental issues grew rapidly following a number of environmental incidents such as the Chernobyl disaster and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and issues such as climate change and ozone degradation entered the public debate. EU policy framework followed the trend of increasing environmental awareness. In the first part of the decade the union’s financial assistance for nature conservation was launched in a number of small projects known as pre-ACE (Action Communautaire pour l'Environnement or EU Actions for the Environment). A few years later some financial programmes for the environment were introduced (ACE, MEDSPA and NORSPA).
Around this time the Single European Act (1986) and the Fifth Environment Action Programme (1993) were launched, setting the tone for EU’s environmental work during the coming decades. Also, LIFE Programme - one of EU’s most essential environmental tools - entered the scene. The environment fund was launched in 1992, with an acronym standing for the French “L’Instrument Financier pour l’Environment”, meaning “financial instrument for the environment”. The programme has been divided into four phases; LIFE I, LIFE II, LIFE III and the on-going LIFE+.
The overall objective of these programmes is to “contribute to the implementation, updating and development of EU environmental policy and legislation by co-financing pilot or demonstration projects with European added value”. It is coordinated by the Environment Directorate-General, and so far more than 3500 projects have been co-financed in total. ECOPROTECTION and INNOWATECH are two projects promoting and spreading techniques that were developed with co-funding from LIFE; the recycling process for bitumen from old roofing felts, and a treatment process for industrial wastewater.
LIFE I (1992-1995)
The initial phase of the programme had five components; i) promotion of sustainable development and quality of the environment, ii) protection of habitats and of nature, iii) administrative structures and environment services, iv) education, training and information and v) actions outside EU. Its main priorities were set in detail on a yearly basis. The total budget was €70 million and 731 projects were funded during this phase.
LIFE II (1996-1999)
In the second phase, the programme was restructured and divided into three categories; LIFE-Nature, LIFE-Environment and LIFE-Third Countries. The budget was increased to €450 million. In June 1999, “LIFE week” was held to bring the actors within the programme together, eventually leading to the establishment of the annual “Green Week” in Brussels.
LIFE III (2000-2006)
As mid-time evaluations clearly indicated positive experiences from the programme and its role in European environmental policy making and legislation, the design of its main features was not changed prior to the third phase. By the end of LIFE III, the programme had contributed €1.36 billion on 2750 projects in 40 countries and territories.
The on-going part of the programme consists of the following parts; Nature & Biodiversity, Environment policy & Governance and Information & Communication. It has a budget of with a budget of €2.14 billion and is operating in all 27 Member States.