Member of the European Commission, responsible for
Only One Earth – don't waste it!
Green Week opening speech
Brussels, 3 June 2008
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to welcome you to Green Week 2008. Thank you for coming.
I would like to begin with two observations. The first is that European environmental policies have delivered immense benefits to Europe's citizens. Their air is cleaner, their beaches and rivers are cleaner and pollutants such as lead in petrol have been banned. In many ways, by allowing countries to work together and solve problems that cross national borders, our environment policy is one of the success stories of European integration.
The second observation is that, just as it is right to celebrate these success stories, sometimes we need to take a step back and look at just how far we still are from a model of development that is genuinely sustainable.
The great environmental challenge of our generation is climate change. And if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at current rates then it is almost certain that global warming will reach dangerous levels during the course of this century with potentially catastrophic changes to our planet.
Through its leadership Europe is working to prevent this. International negotiations are under way to reach a new global climate agreement by the end of next year and, based on the encouraging signs so far, I believe we can get there. But despite all of the good work we are only just at the beginning of the shift towards a low-carbon economy - and the rest of the world is further behind.
The other great global challenge is the loss of biodiversity. Last week I represented the Commission at the UN biodiversity conference in Bonn and the magnitude of the problem is almost impossible to comprehend. Research was published showing that since 1970 some 25% of biodiversity on the planet had been lost. In other words human activity is eliminating about 1% of all other species each and every year.
This is reckless destruction and it comes at a high price. In his interim report on the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity the economist and banker Pavan Sukhdev has estimated that the destruction of nature, and the vital ecosystem services that it provides, could – by 2050 - cost humanity as much as six per cent of global GDP, per year.
Looking at climate change and biodiversity it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that we are still a long way from meeting our most basic environmental objectives. And it is important to understand that climate change and the loss of ecosystems are symptoms of a deeper underlying problem – which is the unsustainable way that we are using up the world’s resources.
Our consumption and production patterns, in Europe and the rest of the world, are driving not only climate change and biodiversity loss but also many other environmental problems - from growing mountains of waste to the overfishing of the oceans, and from fresh water shortages to air pollution.
Consumer-driven Europe's "environmental footprint" is one of the biggest on the planet. If the rest of the world used resources at the same rate as we do, there would need to be more than two planet Earths to meet the demand.
Moving towards a more sustainable pattern of production and consumption will be essential if we are to address the root causes behind environmental degradation and this will be the theme we will be focussing on at this year's Green Week.
The need to address consumption issues is not new. Already in 2002 the World Summit on Sustainable Development concluded that “Fundamental changes in the way societies produce and consume are indispensable for achieving global sustainable development.” It said “All countries should promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, with the developed countries taking the lead.”
There has been some progress since 2002 – most notably with the launch last year of the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management. The Panel has the potential to provide valuable, independent scientific advice to governments on how to use resources more efficiently and how to reduce the environmental impacts of their use. I take the opportunity provided by Angela Crocker’s presence here today to thank UNEP for its work in hosting the panel and managing it.
But apart from the panel, progress towards sustainable consumption and production has been disappointingly slow. There has been talk but not much action. If we are serious about getting to the heart of environmental problems like climate change and biodiversity loss then business as usual is simply not an option. It is now time to go beyond rhetoric and begin putting in place the measures that can actually lead to a change in behaviour.
As a starting point we have to take a fresh look at how we produce products and at how we use them, because there are ways of getting it right and ways of getting it wrong.
Biofuels are a good example. This single term covers a wide range of products that are, in fact, very different in their impacts. The carbon saving a biofuel offers compared with a mineral oil fuel can vary from well over 50% to virtually zero, depending on what kind of biomass it is made from and where this is grown. The same factors make for big variations in the extent to which biofuels add to pressure on land resources or contribute to pushing up food prices. It is for these reasons that the European Union is drawing up binding environmental and social sustainability criteria that biofuels sold in Europe will have to meet.
A lesson from the example of biofuels is that good policy decisions will need to be based on an understanding of the life-cycle impacts throughout the production chain.
The European Commission is currently putting the finishing touches to a new approach to product policy where we will propose the introduction of mandatory minimum standards for the most environmentally harmful products. These standards will be based on a full analysis of products’ environmental impacts from cradle to grave.
We already have standards for food safety, car safety and toy safety, and introducing standards for environmental safety is only common sense. If we are serious about addressing the unsustainable consumption and production patterns that are at the root of our environmental problems then there is no real alternative.
These mandatory product standards will be a part of the Commission's Action Plan on Sustainable Consumption and Production and will be complemented by the voluntary standards of the EU ecolabel scheme. The scheme will be revised and made less costly in order to give manufacturers a greater incentive to go beyond minimum standards.
We will also revamp EMAS, the voluntary eco-management and audit scheme, to make it more attractive for companies to join.
To promote consumer demand for green products we will work closely with the retail sector - which knows better than anyone what people buy and why they buy it. We need to harness their experience, expertise and skills in furthering sustainable consumption.
We will also look at procurement practices because public bodies spend 16% of EU GDP on goods and services each year. This is potentially a massive driver of innovation and we are producing new guidelines to encourage public authorities to buy the greenest goods on the market. This could provide a real incentive for manufacturers to "go green".
We are only at the beginning of move towards sustainable consumption and production. But these are important first steps and in 10 years time I am convinced that environmental product standards will be taken for granted by European consumers. And with a single market of half a billion people where Europe leads the rest of the world very often follows.
There are some who worry that, at a time of economic hardship, environmental policies are becoming something of a luxury. But it is now clear how short-sighted an approach this is.
First and foremost – more sustainable consumption means using less energy and using less raw materials. At a time when companies are looking to be more productive this is exactly the way to improve their economic performance. Green production is lean production and this is the best way to ensure that growth continues and, what is more, that it is environmentally sustainable.
What is more, all the evidence shows that the cost of cleaning up pollution is many times more than preventing it. And with the Stern Review and Mr Sukhdev's work we now know that the consequences of unchecked climate change and biodiversity loss could be catastrophic for the world's economies. Looked at this way, sustainable consumption is a very cost-effective investment in our future.
It is also important to bear in mind that protecting the environment creates jobs and economic growth by stimulating innovation in the now-booming sector of environmental technologies and services. In Europe this is a sector that employs 3.4 million people – more than the pharmaceutical or car industries. Smarter consumption and cleaner production are the ways of the future and by supporting these objectives we can help put European industry at the forefront of what will be the post-industrial revolution.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
With our appetite for resources driving many of today's environmental challenges, we need to step up action to put our economies onto a more sustainable footing and to 'do more with less.' Today's high prices for energy and other commodities give us an even stronger incentive to do so.
We are already developing a number of policies but we will also need new ideas and new insights. As the biggest annual conference dedicated to the EU's environmental policies, Green Week provides an invaluable opportunity to listen to, and learn from, the wealth of expertise and experience that you bring with you.
I wish you a very constructive and enjoyable Green Week.