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MEMO/05/497

Brussels, 21 December 2005

Questions and Answers on the Thematic Strategy on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources

1) What is the issue?

Economic activities are a key driver of resource use. As economies grow, so does the use of natural resources. For instance, we use land to build housing and infrastructure and to dump our rubbish, soil for agricultural activities, forests to provide us with wood and fossil fuels to produce energy. These and other economic activities cause environmental impacts which have begun to threaten the resource base on which our livelihoods, and our future economic growth, depend.

The challenge for policymakers is to ensure more sustainable use of resources in an economy that is globalised and continues to grow. These are mutually reinforcing goals. Efficient use of resources contributes to growth, while inefficient use undermines the resource base on which the economy depends. Resource use must be managed in a way that it does not affect the capacity of ecosystems to produce the goods and services we need.

EU environmental policies on climate change or conservation of biodiversity, already tackle many individual aspects of resource use, but this progress is being considerably slowed down by ever-growing production and consumption volumes. We are causing less environmental stress per unit produced, but we produce so much more so that the overall environmental impact is increasing.

2) What is the objective of the Resource Strategy?

The Thematic Strategy on Sustainable Use of Natural Resources is the first initiative at EU level tackling environmental aspects of resource use in an overarching fashion.

Its objective is to reduce the overall environmental impacts associated with resource use and to do so in a growing economy. In other words: it seeks to de-couple environmental impacts from economic growth. In this context, de-coupling means that environmental impacts must first increase more slowly and then be reduced while the economy continues to grow.

Key to achieving a stable decoupling trend are three factors, which can be termed “More value - less impact - better alternatives."

More value - creating more value while using fewer resources (increasing ‘resource productivity’);

Less impact - reducing the overall environmental impact per unit of resources used (increasing ‘eco-efficiency’);

Better alternatives – if cleaner use cannot be achieved, substituting currently used resources with better alternatives.

3) Which approach and actions does the strategy propose?

The strategy uses life-cycle thinking. This means examining environmental impacts at each stage in the life cycle of a resource - during extraction/harvesting, transport, processing/refining, the use phase of the products made from it, and when a product or resource becomes waste at the end of its useful life. By looking at the whole life cycle, the advantages and disadvantages of focusing on specific stages of the life cycle can be identified and compared, so that the best overall solution is found. With life-cycle thinking, it is possible to avoid the shifting of impacts from one stage in the life cycle to another, and to other countries.

The strategy takes a time horizon of 25 years and focuses on:

  • improving our understanding of resource use, its environmental impacts and its links to economic growth, both in the EU and globally;
  • developing tools to monitor and report progress;
  • initiating actions at different levels of governance that will help us achieve the overall goal and which build on existing policies and legislation.

It therefore identifies a number of specific measures for immediate implementation, based on which the strategy will be developed further. These measures include:

Establishing a European Data Centre on natural resources. This will bring together all the available information in order to monitor and analyse it and to provide policy-relevant information to decision-makers.The Statistical Office of the EU (Eurostat) will coordinate the work of other information providers (in particular the Joint Research Centre and the European Environment Agency) to set up the Data Centre, which should be operational within 12 months of the strategy’s adoption.

Developing indicators to measure progress towards achieving the strategy's goals, building on the work already undertaken. Needed are indicators to measure progress in resource productivity; resource-specific indicators to evaluate whether and to what extent environmental impacts are de-coupled from the use of a particular resource; and eco-efficiency indicators to measure resource productivity and environmental impact at the same time (measuring de-coupling). The Commission will take the lead in developing these indicators by 2008.

Developing national measures and programmes by Member States to achieve a stable de-coupling trend for the next 25 years, reducing the environmental impacts of those resource uses that produce the most significant impacts in each country. A High-Level Forum composed of senior national officials, representatives of the Commission and, as appropriate, other stakeholders will support and guide the development of the national measures and programmes. The High-Level Forum will be set up soon after the strategy’s adoption.

Considering the environmental impacts of resource use in economic sector initiatives that the Commission intends to develop in the context of the EU Strategy for Growth and Jobs. The application of life-cycle thinking within these initiatives would mean that they should contain a comprehensive overview of the sector’s most significant negative environmental impacts and concrete actions to reduce them, while ensuring the sector’s competitiveness. Pursuing greater eco-efficiency can act as a driver for innovation, improved productivity and hence competitiveness and growth.

Establishing an International Panel on the sustainable use of natural resources. This panel will be set up in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It will provide independent scientific advice about the key environmental impacts of resource use. Important elements of the work will include contributing to strategies to reduce environmental impacts in rapidly expanding economies, in particular through changing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, and to building knowledge and capacity in developing countries.

In addition, the Commission will pursue existing policies that reduce the environmental impacts of resource use, such as policies on climate change and biodiversity and the continued integration of environmental concerns into other policy areas.

4) Why does the Resource Strategy not work with resource-specific targets?

There are several reasons why resource-specific targets would not be appropriate at this stage:

  • It is premature to set targets as there is not yet a generally accepted indicator to measure the environmental impacts of resource use. The strategy aims to develop such an indicator by 2008.
  • The situation in the Member States is too diverse to set uniform targets. The resource use situation differs from country to country, and there are also significant differences in impacts of resource use. For example, for the time being energy-efficiency in the EU-15 Member States is much higher than in the EU-10.
  • Since resource use is influenced by many policy areas (e.g. economics, energy, transport, agriculture, fisheries, etc.), targets cannot be dictated by environmental policies alone. Environmental concerns must be taken into account in all relevant policy areas, and appropriate targets could be set in the context of these policies.

The application of the three specific targets to be developed (resource productivity, resource-specific impacts and eco-efficiency) will be instrumental in reducing the negative environmental impacts of resource use. They can then serve as a basis to set specific objectives.

5) What should be the content and focus of the national measures and programmes?

The aim of the national measures and programmes is to support the achievement of the overarching objective of the strategy, namely to reduce the environmental impacts associated with resource use and to do so in a growing economy. As the resource use situation in each Member State is different (e.g. some have large forest resources, others none at all), each Member State should focus on the resource use that has the most significant environmental impacts in its area and tackle those specifically.

An annex to the strategy suggests a number of measures that Member States could take. They include mapping current resource use and projecting it for the future; introducing incentives to encourage the development of 'clean' products based on the life-cycle approach and to change production and consumption patterns; developing measures related to the import of resources to reduce the associated environmental impacts in the exporting countries; monitoring progress based on the indicators to be developed by the Commission; and developing a timetable for progress towards de-coupling in its economy.

6) How can industry contribute to better resource use?

Companies can substitute impact-intensive raw materials with low-impact resources. They can change production processes and/or invest in environmental technologies to make sure that the sector-related environmental impacts are reduced over time.

The strategy does not seek to restrict the use of materials or energy as such. Instead, it challenges EU business to further develop its leadership in the eco-efficient use of natural resources. EU industry is already a major player in the world market for eco-innovative products and services, which was worth an estimated € 500 billion in 2003 (comparable to the aerospace industry or the pharmaceutical industry) and which has been growing at around 5% annually.

The strategy identifies the scope for the application of life-cycle thinking to resource use in the economic and industrial sectoral initiatives that the Commission intends to develop in the context of the EU Strategy for Growth and Jobs and new policies to strengthen the policy framework for the manufacturing industry.[1]

7) What negative impacts does resource use cause?

The following are just a few examples:

Globally, the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transport adds some 25 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere each year. The emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases have caused a rise in average temperature of almost 1° Celsius in Europe over the last 100 years.

In Europe, ecologically damaging land use is accelerating. Built-up areas have expanded by 20% during the last two decades, while the population has grown by only 6%. Land fragmentation is one of the main causes of biodiversity decline. Land development also ‘seals’ soil, preventing and reducing its ability to perform normal functions in the future, such as food and fibre production, carbon storage and providing habitats for animals and plants.

Globally, some 5-25% of freshwater use exceeds the long-term availability of supplies and is now met through engineered water transfers or overexploitation of groundwater supplies, which is no sustainable solution. Water scarcity represents a threat to human health, disrupts ecosystems and hampers food production.

Some 0.5-1% of tropical forest area is cut down each year for timber and to create farmland. Deforestation deprives animals and plants of their habitats, which can in turn cause the loss of biological diversity. Deforestation often leads to erosion, land slides and desertification, it changes the carbon balance (since trees and plants absorb CO2) and it alters the regional climate.

8) How are resource use and the associated environmental impacts measured?

Use of materials (not to be confused with the associated environmental impacts) is measured through Material Flow Accounting, a methodology that takes all materials into account except water.

In the EU, overall material consumption is currently around 16 tonnes per capita and year.[2] The shares of the various resources are:

  • Construction materials (natural stone, sand, gravel, limestone): 40%
  • Fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal, lignite): 25%
  • Biomass (forestry products, agricultural products): 25%
  • Industrial minerals (salt, sand, potash, clay) and metals (iron, zinc, aluminium): 9%

Material consumption in the EU has remained virtually unchanged for the last 20 years. Over the same period, the EU economy has grown by 50%. This is a positive trend that shows that our resource productivity has increased. This is partly due to higher resource efficiency and partly due to the move towards a service-based economy.

However, despite stable material consumption, the environmental impacts of resource use have been increasing. Out of the 16 tonnes per capita resource input every year, 10 tonnes stay in the economy as physical stock, e.g. roads, houses and durable goods. The remaining 6 tonnes leave the economy as waste, CO2 and emissions of other pollutants. This accumulation of material in the economy (physical stock) and in the environment (landfills, CO2, other pollutant emissions) causes environmental impacts to grow.

9) Which activities contribute most to environmental impacts associated with resource use?

Many studies conclude that 1) food production, 2) transport and 3) housing contribute, in this order, the lion’s share to total environmental impacts of resource use.[3]

The environmental impacts of food production are mainly due to land use, use of fertilisers and pesticides, and energy use. The transport sector comes second due to the impacts of fossil fuel use (21% of EU greenhouse gas emissions), air pollution and landscape fragmentation, which puts pressure on biodiversity. Housing is concerned as a result of heating and cooling with energy derived from fossil fuels, which is responsible for 40% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, as well as land use.

10) To what extent does the EU import resources, and do they cause impacts in the countries of origin?

Europe is highly dependent on imported natural resources. For example, the EU imports more than 95% of the metals, 76.8% of the oil and 51.3% of the gas it uses (2002 figures). This could rise to 90% for oil and 80% for gas by 2030. The European livestock industry is partially dependent on imported cattle feed, and much of our seafood is imported.

While increased global trade has benefits for both importing and exporting countries, the extraction and processing practices often have environmental impacts, particularly in some parts of the developing world. For example, mining activities have led to severe water pollution and direct risks to human health; the overexploitation of tropical forests is accelerating the loss of biodiversity and leading to desertification; intensive farming, such as cotton production, has caused water shortages and droughts.

At present, global trade rules do not include provisions for protecting natural resources from overexploitation and environmental pressures.

11) Does the Resource Strategy cover the use of all natural resources including oil, which might become scarce?

The strategy covers all natural resources. It establishes a framework that will allow us, based on life-cycle thinking, to move towards using natural resources in an environmentally sustainable way. The focus will be on those resources whose uses cause the most significant impacts.

This means that possible bottlenecks of supply in the markets are not immediate environmental problem in themselves. Strictly speaking, less use of oil could even be regarded as beneficial for the environment if it reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The strategy will tackle environmentally damaging use rather than supply questions.

12) Does the strategy propose the replacement of non-renewable resources with renewable ones?

The strategy is aimed at reducing the environmental impacts associated with the use of resources, irrespective of whether they are renewable or non-renewable.

At first sight, using renewable resources seems attractive because they replenish themselves. But if they are overexploited - such as certain commercial fish stocks and freshwater - their use represents an environmental problem since it disrupts the functioning of ecosystems.

Similarly, the limited availability of non-renewable resources is not necessarily environmentally problematic. In the case of fossil fuels, it is actually their use that causes negative environmental impacts. Yet again in other instances, for example when it comes to renewable energy sources, the situation is reverse. It is much better for the environment to use wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy sources than fossil fuels.

Based on life-cycle thinking, the strategy will examine the environmental impacts of the use of all resources and then focus on reducing the most severe impacts.

13) How is the Thematic Strategy on resources linked to the Thematic Strategy on Waste Prevention and Recycling?

The Resource Strategy provides the scientific and conceptual foundation upon which the waste strategy rests. The Resource Strategy advocates life-cycle thinking to minimise the environmental impacts of resource use. Waste is the last stage in the life cycle of resources. In order to minimise the environmental impacts of resources at this stage, waste policies must examine which waste management options cause the least environmental impact in view of the whole life cycle of a resource.

14) How much will implementation of the Resource Strategy cost and will it impact on competitiveness?

According to the Impact Assessment of the strategy carried out by the Commission, at this stage the costs will be limited to the operational costs of establishing and running the Data Centre and the International Panel and the costs of developing indicators and discuss national measures. These are estimated as follows:

Costs to the EU budget: € 500,000 a year for setting up and running the International Panel; € 1.5 million a year for three years to set up the Data Centre and then € 1 million a year to run it; € 300,000 a year for studies and expert meetings; € 800,000 a year in administrative costs to the Commission for staff working on the follow-up to the strategy.

Costs to Member States: between €300,000 and 550,000 per year in administrative costs (staff needed for analysing existing data, gathering extra information, attending EU meetings devoted to the strategy etc.).

Follow-up costs, i.e. costs that may arise from the implementation of national measures, cannot be evaluated at this stage.

15) Do countries in other parts of the world have similar strategies?

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has done substantial work on resource use. The OECD's Environmental Strategy for the First Decade of the 21st Century sets the goal of de-coupling environmental pressures from economic growth and advocates the use of market-based instruments to achieve this goal.

The Resource Strategy will build on this work, as well as relevant work by others. For instance, China is working on the concept of a circular economy, which is defined by the Chinese Government as “a growth mode which operates in the way of “resource extraction => production => consumption => regenerated resources”.[4]

16) How has the Resource Strategy been developed?

Work on the strategy began in 2000, when preparing the 6th Environment Action Programme (2002-2012). This programme asked the Commission to present a Thematic Strategy on Resources. In October 2003, the Commission issued a Communication (“Towards a Thematic Strategy on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources”) outlining the issues identified and solutions envisaged,[5] based on several studies carried out for the Commission.

It then established an Advisory Forum with representatives of industry, governments, NGOs and academia and set up two Working Groups, on supply and use of resources, each of which prepared a report. The two reports contain 186 recommendations for a final strategy. These recommendations fed into an Internet-based stakeholder consultation from 1 December 2004 to 30 January 2005, the results of which have been taken into account in the development of the strategy.

17) Will the strategy contribute to the Better Regulation initiative?

Like the other thematic strategies which are being adopted by the Commission[6], the waste strategy represents the next generation of environment policy, taking a global and medium-term perspective, setting clear environmental objectives and seeking to identify the most appropriate instruments to achieve these objectives. It is based on extensive research and consultation with stakeholders and addresses the issue in a holistic way, taking into account links with other problems and policy areas.


[1] See Integrated Guidelines For Growth And Jobs (2005-2008). COM (2005) 141 from 12 April 2004, at http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/site/en/com/2005/com2005_0141en01.pdf,

and Strengthening the policy framework for EU manufacturing: an industrial policy for Growth and Employment, to be adopted shortly by the Commission.

[2] Eurostat (2002): Material use in the European Union 1980-2000: indicators and analysis. Working Papers and Studies series, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

[3] See Policy Review on Decoupling: Development of indicators to assess decoupling of economic development and environmental pressure in the EU-25 and AC-3 countries, at: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/natres/pdf/fin_rep_natres.pdf,

and Environmental Impact of Products (EIPRO). Analysis of the life cycle environmental impacts related to the total final consumption of the EU25, at:
http://ec.europa.eu/environment/ipp/pdf/eipro_draft_report2.pdf

[4] See Main Conclusions and Policy Suggestions of the Taskforce on Circular Economy & Cleaner Production (2004), at

http://eng.cciced.org/cn/company/Tmxxb143/card143.asp?lmid=5209&siteid=1&tmid=320&flbh=143.

[5] See Towards a Thematic Strategy on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources (COM (2003) 572), at http://europa.eu/eur-lex/en/com/cnc/2003/com2003_0572en01.pdf

[6] The other thematic strategies concern air pollution, the marine environment, sustainable use of resources, soils, pesticides and the urban environment.


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