Steps to sustainability
19 September 2011
The EU's Roadmap on Resource Efficiency sets out vital tasks for ensuring a sustainable future, outlines European Commissioner for the Environment...
If we could meet with our ancestors and review the last century, we'd see an astounding increase in mankind's use of natural resources. We'd see the world's population quadruple, and economic output increase 40 fold. We'd see fossil fuel use increase 12 times over, and extraction of material resources grow by a factor of 34 – that would be the picture for the 20th Century. But if we could look to the future too, I can't help feeling that we would see a very different picture emerging. We'd see – I hope – a world waking up to the reality of our need for a more sustainable use of natural resources.
The last century's remarkable growth was fuelled by innovation and the use of natural resources, but that era of plentiful and cheap resources is coming to a close. This means we have to make some far-reaching choices. Carrying on as before is not an option – recent calculations show that 60% of the world's major ecosystems (those that help produce these resources - have now been degraded or used unsustainably).
This is why the EU is proposing a path towards sustainability, in the form of a new Roadmap on Resource Efficiency. The idea is simple – we need to radically change the way we have been using resources over the last century, and stop borrowing from the future. The roadmap calls for a more rational management and use of all material and natural resources throughout their life cycle, from extraction, transport, transformation and consumption, and on into the disposal of waste.
It's an idea that touches on most areas of environmental policy, but it also calls for concerted action across a far wider range of policy areas. One thing is for sure – we will never achieve sustainability if we carry on thinking of the environment as a discrete area for action. We have to look at the bigger picture, and ensure that sustainability is built into all areas of EU policy.
Promoting sustainable practice calls for the right mix of tools. At the European level we need appropriate legislation, which is properly implemented in the member states and complemented by a set of supporting measures. With that in mind we are increasingly looking into market-based policy instruments, at scrapping environmentally harmful subsidies, and at switching from taxing labour to taxing environmental damage (taxing the 'bads' instead of the goods). Policy needs to provide the right signals and incentives, remove barriers and address market failures.
Additionally, we need to change the mindsets of consumers and businesses alike. Consumers have huge power in terms of steering the offer of goods and services, and this is why the demand side will be an essential component of the Resource Efficiency Roadmap. A number of information campaigns have already been carried out in Europe regarding recycling and the need to reduce energy or water use, but there has been very little talk about the natural resources that are being used up as a consequence of our daily lives and our consumption patterns – as inputs to what we eat, how we live, how we move. Often these resources are not properly valued in monetary terms, and the price we pay (or fail to pay) for using them doesn't reflect their scarcity and provide the right market signals.
We need to increase awareness about what is happening to the natural resources around us, and appreciate how important they are in sustaining people's wellbeing and livelihoods. A better understanding of these dependencies will enable people to make better, greener choices. One step in the right direction will be a new campaign to be launched by the European Commission this autumn, the focus of which will be on making consumers think before they make a purchase – being aware and empowered to make the right decisions.
Decades of resource-intensive economic growth have locked our global economy into resource-inefficient, carbon-intensive infrastructure, and unsustainable patterns of consumption. The challenge is to break out of this business model, and to promote innovative and technological solutions that will reduce resource use on a par with increases in labour productivity. That's why our roadmap is calling for a decisive technological and societal transition to a resource-efficient, low-carbon and climate-resilient economy, one that can robustly maintain prosperity, wellbeing and a sustainable relationship between nature and human beings.
Coordinated pan-European research and innovation activities will be key to achieving the required structural shift and critical mass. Eco-innovation in particular will be central to developing environmentally friendly business models that can be replicated across the EU and beyond and provide opportunities for growth and jobs. EU-level action will also contribute to global research programmes and standardisation efforts, and strengthen collaboration with similar initiatives in other industrialised and developing countries.
The problem, of course, is also global. In May 2012 representatives from all over the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro for the UN Sustainable Development Convention Conference, in an effort to define the prospects of sustainable development for the next 20 years. It is a unique opportunity that could mark the start of an accelerated and profound worldwide transition towards a green economy – one that generates growth, creates jobs and eradicates poverty by investing in and preserving the natural capital we all depend on for our long-term survival.
The changes we need are a real-world economic imperative. Within a generation, our economy will require a fundamental transformation – in energy, industrial, agricultural, fishery and transport systems, in producer and consumer behaviour, and in technological innovation. With the Resource Efficiency Roadmap, Europe is setting out its stall. The hope is that other countries heed that call, and join in promoting resource efficiency as a new global model for sustainable economic growth.