Preparation for a strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources
The European Union (EU) outlines the broad principles for a European strategy designed to reduce the impact which the use of natural resources has on the environment, based on the state of these resources and on current policies.
Commission Communication of 1 October 2003: "Towards a thematic strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources" [COM(2003) 572 - Not published in the Official Journal]
Obtaining and using natural resources has an impact on the environment that makes it necessary to work out a comprehensive strategy for the sustainable management of these resources.
This is why in this Communication the Commission presents the main features of a future thematic strategy with the aim of establishing a framework and adopting measures that will make the sustainable use of natural resources possible without continuing to degrade the environment while meeting the objectives laid down in the Lisbon strategy.
In order to ensure that such a strategy is efficient, it should be based on particular elements: the resources themselves, the impact of human activities and actions already initiated.
Natural resources are of various types and may be classified according to the following categories: raw materials (e.g. minerals and biomass), environmental media (water, air and soil), flow resources (e.g. wind, geothermal and solar energy) and physical space required to produce or sustain the other resources. These resources may be further classified into renewable and non-renewable resources.
This diversity is of importance because not all human activities have the same impact according to the type of resource. For instance, with regard to non-renewable resources (basically covering minerals, metals and fossil fuels) there is a risk of reserves running out, even though this risk is tempered by various factors such as improvements to material efficiency, recycling, replacement by other products and the fact that known reserves only represent a fraction of total reserves. This quantitative impact also affects particular renewable resources when consumption exceeds their regenerating capacity, e.g. in the case of fisheries and freshwater.
In addition to the quantitative risk, the extraction and use of natural resources may reduce the quality of the natural environment (such as the atmosphere, bodies of water, soil) in a way that threatens ecosystems, in particular by destroying habitats or causing the extinction of certain species, or human health (e.g. through exposure to harmful substances such as asbestos).
These two types of potential problems (quantitative and qualitative) require different policy responses which should cover the entire lifecycle of natural resources, from extraction to final disposal in the form of waste. Some actions have already been initiated either under environmental policies or through the pursuit of policies affecting the use of resources (policies on farming and fishing, research, chemical products, etc.).
However, there is as yet no comprehensive policy to address the environmental impact of resource management. The future thematic strategy should therefore adopt an overall approach, focusing on disseminating information and organising an action framework with the following main elements:
- gathering knowledge on the links between obtaining and using resources on the one hand and their impact in every phase of their lifecycle on the other, including information on material flows, the state of ecosystems, land use and marine resources;
- assessing policies impacting on the environment (environmental, economic, tax, farm, fishery, energy and transport policies, etc.) to determine how far policy choices in these different areas are compatible with the aim of decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation;
- policy integration of the issues relating to natural resources so as to ensure that more account is taken of these questions in other relevant policies and to pave the way for the adoption of specific and coherent actions on the basis of information derived from the two abovementioned activities.
More specifically, the sixth environmental action programme for the environment provides that resource strategy (one of the seven thematic strategies provided for) should comprise five tasks:
- en estimate of materials and waste streams in the European Union, including imports and exports, for example by using material flow analyses;
- a review of the efficiency of policy measures and the impact of subsidies relating to natural resources and waste;
- establishment of goals and targets for resource efficiency and the diminished use of resources, decoupling the link between economic growth and negative environmental impact;
- promotion of extraction and production methods and techniques to encourage eco-efficiency and the sustainable use of raw materials, energy, waste and other resources;
- development and implementation of a broad range of instruments, including research, technology transfers, market-based and economic instruments, programmes of best practice and indicators of resources efficiency.
This Communication constitutes the first stage in working out a European resources strategy. This strategy should tie in with two other initiatives also provided for in the sixth framework programme for the environment: integrated product policy and waste prevention and recycling strategy. Through parallel implementation of the three initiatives it will be possible to focus more clearly on the trade-offs between the management of resources, products and waste and their impact on the environment.
For more information on the follow-up to this consultation, go to the page devoted to resource strategy.