Ms. Margot Wallström
European Commissioner for Environment
Sustainable Development and the Environment the Challenges facing the EU
Bridging the Gap seminar
Stockholm, 9-11 May 2001
Thank you for inviting me to speak this morning on bridging the gap -sustainable research and sectoral integration.
Bridging such a gap in the 20 minutes I have been given today may not be possible, but I hope at least to be able to elaborate a bit on how we make the most of research as one of the key solutions to obtain sustainable development.
And sustainable development is all about the future our children will enjoy. We must teach them how to shape their own future, and we must begin to do so ourselves.
Consider my role. As a policy-maker I can try to protect the environment, and as a consumer I can choose to buy environmentally friendly goods. It is up to you in the research community to make sure that I can do this in the best way possible. You can make sure that as a policy-maker I have the information I need to design effective legislation. And you can make sure that as a consumer I have environmentally friendly goods to buy.
In short, you will have a very decisive role to play in whether Europe really does develop sustainably.
The over-riding objective in the EU strategy for sustainable development is to make sure that sustainable development is operational and delivers concrete improvements in the quality of our lives. For this reason, we have based our strategy on two principles that can offer us practical insights.
The first principle is that sustainable development is concerned with the welfare of both present and future generations. Too often, if a policy has benefited us in the short-term then we have turned a blind eye to the long-term repercussions.
The second principle is that we should base our actions on an holistic assessment of the links and synergies between the economic, social and environmental dimensions of our policies. Too often, our economic policies have been designed with very little consideration for their environmental or social consequences. Considering the wider impacts of your actions may sound like an obvious statement - but it's not obvious that we've applied such basic common sense in the past. Just have a look at subsidies to agricultural practices that have been bad for the environment and cost consumers.
Of course, both of these principles sound like "motherhood and apple pie" concepts. Nobody could ever disagree with either of them. The key question if we are to deliver real value-added is how we put them into practice.
This was a potential problem for our Sustainable Development Strategy. The phrase 'sustainable development' means many things to many people. If I were to ask every person here today for their own definition of 'sustainability' and how it should be applied, I would receive many different - and often conflicting - answers. But whilst few of us can agree as to what is sustainable, most of us could agree on what is unsustainable. We will therefore operationalise sustainability by highlighting a few of the crunch issues that Europe needs to tackle.
I hope this idea of focusing on the unsustainable rather than the sustainable is one that you can also apply in your research programmes. When I read through the "Key Issues" that you will be discussing throughout this conference, I was struck by how applied they are. They seemed very much focused on delivering answers to the problems of the average citizen of Europe. And this is the approach that we must follow.
So what are the key unsustainable trends that we need to focus our research efforts on? The Commission has identified six. Each topic is complex and cuts across many policy areas. Each is an issue with severe potential consequences, where the time scale is long and which is of concern across Europe. For each there is a gap that we must bridge.
Firstly, we need to combat climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the potential severity of global warming, we are unfortunately having little success in reversing the existing trends. Research has contributed to our understanding, for example, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The research community has shown that the time for talk has passed, and the time for action is now. But there is still a lot more to be done. We need to better understand how our ecosystems function, so that we can better understand how our impacts will add up over time. And we need to develop new ways for our economy to function without producing excessive greenhouse gas emissions. In the Parallel Sessions you will be addressing the question of how we can move towards a society that is more energy efficient and more reliant on renewable energy. This is the fundamental question on preventing climate change, and I wish you a fruitful discussion.
The second key issue is efficient natural resource management. We want to protect our biodiversity and decouple economic growth from resource use. To do this, the research community needs to help the business community develop products and processes that are environmentally friendly.
Thirdly, we want to tackle public health including both protection of health, and the financing of health care. Here you have an important role to play as well. For example, an effective chemicals management system requires us to understand the effects a chemical can have. Of the 2,500 or so high-production volume chemicals on the market, only 3% are adequately tested and a further 14% have basic test data only.
Another example from our recent Chemicals White Paper is the risk that endocrine disruptors can pose and the fact that the persons most susceptible are our children and infants. We need to know more about the effect of low doses, we need to know a lot more about the cumulative effect of long-term exposure and of exposure to mixtures of chemicals, and we need to know more about the impact of endocrine alterations on cancer. But research must do more than just improve our understanding - it must also deliver solutions. It must help us to develop the chemical production processes that ultimately will allow us to stop using hazardous substances. And we can even do all this whilst getting more for our money. For example, the Chemicals White Paper also sets clear priorities for our work and takes steps to reduce duplicate testing.
Fourthly, we want to develop a policy towards land use and transport that allows for sustainable mobility. At present, transport is a major source of environmental pollution and a major contributor to climate change.
Fifthly, combating social exclusion and poverty. Poverty related disparities are growing, both between and within countries. People are being deprived of the opportunity to fulfil their potential with social and economic costs for our countries. We need to better understand why.
And the sixth and final key unsustainable issue is addressing our demographic problems caused by an ageing society. The European population is forecast to decline and age because of a fall in fertility rates and increasing life expectancy. We need policy responses such as reforms in the pensions system, but we also need to understand the implications of an ageing population.
What does our choice of these six key issues mean for you? To me, it means that if your research is to come under the "sustainable development research" umbrella then it must help us to reverse Europe's unsustainable trends. Your research must lead to real changes in the way we behave. It is the aim of our strategy to draw a line under discussion, and to provide focus to our future efforts.
And more importantly, the key to success lies with the dissemination of results. If we want to deliver operational solutions, we must make sure that research findings are disseminated and taken up by the world at large. One of the accusations that is often made, is that even where research could be useful, the target audience does not hear about it. Needless to say, good research is useless if the people who should be using it are unaware of it. We, the policy-makers, have a responsibility to make sure that this happens, and you, who are doing the research, must help us in paving the way.
This means that research must support the development of products. Research must be outward-looking. Too often in the past, it has failed to deliver real solutions to the problems that the world faces.
What will the six key issues mean to the European Union?
Each of these problems will challenge us not just for the coming year but for a generation at least. At Gothenburg next month, we will therefore present a set of policy specific initiatives or recommendations to respond to the key shortcomings identified for each of the six unsustainable trends. Our strategy will have to be effective, concrete and measurable, with indicators, targets, and goals.
Let me say a few more words on what I see as the policy remedies for our environmental problems. These include:
Firstly, let me stress the obvious: to improve our understanding through scientific analysis of problems. We know a lot already but we need to know much more, for example on how pollution affects our health.
Secondly, promoting green technology. There is a big unexploited potential in technology and we have to create the right conditions to bring new technologies to the market. This is why the consultation paper on the sustainable development strategy calls for a technology push. Both public and private research could do more.
Let me give you an example. You have a parallel session devoted to the issue of Information Technology. Information Technology can be very much a double-edged sword. Left to itself, it may well lead to more pressure on the environment. But if we harness it, then it offers an opportunity to break the link between economic growth and environmental degradation. And what holds for Information Technology I believe holds for technology in general.
Thirdly, offering rewards and reforming markets so that they deliver the correct price signals. I see that one of the key questions you will be addressing is whether "government policy responses are more effective than market based instruments". UNICE, the business federation, tells me that in Europe customers are almost 20% slower to adopt new environmental products and services than customers in the US. This is in part because we do not have the right price signals, so customers do not reward research and the businesses that develop new products. This is why the government is increasingly looking to the market.
And, fourthly, developing more coherent policymaking and removing policy inconsistencies, such as perverse subsidies or state aid.
I cannot stress enough, that you in the research community can support each of these solutions. By providing us with well-applied research, you can make sure that our responses are effective, and get to the root of the problems. That is why we must make sure that your research results will be disseminated.
Now, let's step back for a moment, and look at what the Lisbon agenda tells us about the more general links between research and the way we tackle environmental problems.
The Lisbon Agenda aims to do away with the existing structural rigidities in Europe. As one of the tools to achieve this flexible economy, Lisbon highlighted the need for Europe to do more research in general. At present, R&D expenditure per capita in the EU is less than half the level of the US. Having said this, I am glad to see that Sweden leads the way in Europe, although even Europe as such is still behind the American benchmark.
The reason we need to increase our research efforts is that it can contribute to the challenge of creating a more flexible and knowledge-based economy. If we meet this challenge, then our reward will be an economy that can adapt to the challenges of sustainable development at a low cost. It is a flexible economy, for example, that could cheaply reduce reliance on dirty fuel. This is the link between Lisbon and sustainable development. Lisbon will help us to develop a green economy.
All of this suggests that it is important that we support research. We are doing so.
The 6th Framework Programme will help us ensure sure that research delivers solutions to our sustainable problems. My colleague, Mr Busquin will shortly outline what it can offer. It is important that it rises to its' challenge. It must provide focus and support.
Within DG Environment, we too are acutely aware of the potential importance of research in delivering solutions to environmental problems. This is why we have highlighted it in our 6th Environmental Action Programme. This Programme sets out the way in which we will work this decade. It puts forward an approach based on sound science and analysis. It recognises that we will need to lean heavily on the research community. On Friday, you will have the chance to ask my Head of Cabinet, Rolf Annerberg about some of the specifics on how we will harness research in the future.
The title of this conference is "Bridging the Gap". I earlier outlined the six key areas where we have a gap between where are now and where we want to be. In many ways this is like standing on one side of a canyon and looking at the other side, knowing that we need to cross. Our first option is to climb down our side, cross at the bottom and climb up the other side of the canyon. But this is a time consuming and tiring way of crossing. A much better way is to spend a little time building a bridge over the top of the canyon. Once you have a bridge, it is easy to cross over.
When we are crossing the environmental chasm we face - you will be the bridge builders. And you will need to make sure your bridge is built on strong supports. The four supports on which it will rest are that:
firstly, your research is sound and robust;
secondly, that it is focussed on our priority issues;
thirdly, that it is widely disseminated and reaches its target audience;
and fourthly, that it moves our markets towards production and consumption of environmentally friendly goods.
If you can build a bridge with these four strong supports, then we can bridge the gap between our unsustainable present and a sustainable future. This is our challenge.