European Commissioner for Environment
Using democracy to safeguard the environment
General assembly of the 66th International Session of the European Youth Parliament in Greece
Athens, 8 April 2011
Good morning everybody,
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak today at the 66th International Session of the European Youth Parliament.
George Bernard Shaw said that 'youth is wasted on the young'. I look at today's event – and the history of the European Youth Parliament – and I know that that is simply not true.
This year, I see that you have decided to focus on one of the most central and pressing issues for all of us: democracy.
Some people take democracy for granted. I don't.
I come from Slovenia. A country that back in 2004 was part of the biggest enlargement of the European Union. This joining of the Union was a chance to sustain peace, stability, democracy and other values we share in European Union through integration, understanding and cooperation.
The objective was nothing less than the creation of a whole, free, democratic and peaceful Europe.
In the 1990s there was war in the former Yugoslavia. I will never forget those days. The forming of new democracies in Eastern Europe has transformed the Balkans, the region which is close to my heart.
And this democracy has had other enormous legal and economic impacts.
EU membership means rights AND obligations. There are new rules, laws and regulations which we all have to follow.
European legislation covers competition, the internal market, and so many other areas, including environmental protection.
As you probably know, this last example is what I deal with.
The environment is not, as many imagine, only the concern of people who love trees, birds and fish.
It is a complex subject, covering our planet's resources and the way we live our lives on this one and relatively small planet. It is about protecting species and biodiversity, this is true, but it is also about farming, climate change, chemicals, clean water, pollution – it is an economic issue. It is a question about jobs and money.
The European Commission has published its ideas for the next twenty years in a document, called EU 2020. This is an attempt to build what we all know as 'sustainable growth' – European prosperity that will last well into the future and will help us get the best from our people, from our economies and from our resources.
And we need to think carefully about resources. Because we are using ours up way too fast.
Think about all the things we use. And how big our population is getting.
In the 20th Century the world population grew four times, and economic output 40 times. We increased our fossil fuel use by 16 times, our fishing catches by 35, our water use by 9 and CO2 emissions increased by 17 times.
By 2050, the estimates are, that there will be 9 billion people on the Earth – they will all want a good standard of living, and rightly so, and that means using even more of our resources.
But there is a problem. There aren't enough resources to go around. We have to change our behaviour and our production and consumption patterns now, before we run out.
Over the last few years in Europe, we have been successful in improving the quality of our water and improving air pollution. But there is plenty more to be done to protect our ecosystems and to make sure we generate less waste – to use just two examples.
The most important thing about the environment is that we have to stop looking at it on its own. If you think about the internet, you can't just think about one Facebook page, or one tweet, or one computer screen – it is a HUGE network of inter-related things.
The environment is bigger than that – it is the biggest network of all.
And we can use it to help provide jobs, to make us richer for sure, but we also have to make sure that as we use it, we don't destroy it – not today and not tomorrow.
This is a democratic challenge. Because we need to use democracy to safeguard the environment and make it work for us.
This means getting everyone involved. The involvement of all the institutions of the European Union, the governments of the countries who make up the European Union, their regions and everyone who can be involved, working together to get the agreements and make the policies that will guarantee we get where we want to be.
It also means looking at the global challenge for the environment, because some environmental problems cannot and do not respect borders.
So we have to ask ourselves how we can work with the rest of the world, developing countries and with organisations like the United Nations to make sure our work does not contradict – for example - the Millennium Development Goals.
I see that you are prepared for this kind of democratic discussion – the Committee Work you commit to as part of the Youth Parliament is the best kind of preparation for being the future democrats and leaders you could certainly become.
I admire your hard work and commitment and praise you for your choice of topics. You have a real grasp of the biggest issues of today.
You are growing up in a changing and certainly more fragile world. There are pressures on our planet that we have ignored for too long. I'm convinced that your life will be determined by sustainability and governance - the challenges we face and the way we organise ourselves to deal with them. What we need is nothing more and nothing less than a kind of 'common sense revolution'.
You are the ones who will be faced with the consequences of the behaviour of your forefathers. I hope and believe that the work we are doing now is putting in place the structure to help you understand those consequences and to do something about them.
It's your future – and we are trying to make sure it is in the best possible shape for you…
But the fact that you are not ignorant and that you do care about your own future as active members of the European Youth Parliament, is truly encouraging. The future of the future is in good hands.