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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Reaching for resource efficiency and innovation in the chemicals sector

Chemicals Forum

Helsinki, 19 May 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, Good morning.

I don't need to tell you that chemicals are everywhere. And from sunrise to sunset they make our lives easier.

Given this, it is easy to see why the chemicals industry is so important globally. It is one of the leading players in the world economy, with European companies playing a very prominent role. But its products also raise concerns: both environmental and health, as well as questions about the long term sustainability of our lifestyles.

However, I am still proud of the fact that we have come a long way with our long term thinking and legislation on chemicals. The chemical sector has committed itself to maintaining high levels of responsibility towards its production, its workers, consumers and the environment. And we have built a legal framework that protects people and the environment and encourages the innovation and competitiveness of the chemical industry.

Today I don't want to speak only about REACH as a regulatory tool, but rather about the need for innovation, and how we can work resource efficiency into the chemicals sector. And REACH is meant to be a stimulus for innovation. It boosts innovation because it gives us the legal means to search for alternatives … innovative substances, or alternative methods. We want to replace and stop using dangerous chemicals and we want a major shift away from the use of dangerous chemicals over the next decade. 'Greener and cleaner' is our mantra - a mantra for preserving our environment and rejecting unsustainable path.

From past developments we learn lessons for the future. History has shown us that our relationship with chemicals and chemical products has changed. Take plastics for example. We learned to love plastic because it was an innovation: new, useful, cheap and durable…but today we recognise that we cannot produce, use and throw it away without thinking of the consequences. So, our attitudes, based on newly acquired experiences and knowledge are changing.

Over 40 years we have also developed a comprehensive body of environmental legislation that have given Europeans cleaner water and air, and a level playing field for businesses. We have collectively limited excessively wasteful or harmful behaviour, we are imposing sanctions on those who pollute and damage.

We also have more energy efficient technologies for our homes and transport that generate renewable energy, substitute hazardous materials and make other materials easier to recycle. As a former Commissioner for Science and Research, I know just what technology can do.

But I maintain that it’s still not enough. Even if we can get the right mix of attitude, laws and technology, the sheer weight of consumption of 500 million Europeans is just too great. Never mind the legitimate desires of many other millions on our planet in developing countries who want to share those lifestyles.

We need to change our behaviour, as consumers and as producers. And to do that we need to make our markets work in ways which put the proper value on the resources we use. We need to provide the right incentives for resource efficiency.

But what is resource efficiency?

It is a policy, taken up at the highest level in the European Union, based on a common sense view of resource use. It means using less of what we have to achieve the same, or even more. It means managing our resources sustainably, throughout their life cycle, so as to reduce the environmental impact of their use. It means living, producing and consuming within the physical and biological limits of this Planet.

We need everybody behind the concept.

We need concept to be applied on all levels, from global to European, from national to the regional and local.

We have to work with the private sector using the resources. The signs are encouraging. My meetings with the business community confirm that they fully share the logic of resource efficiency. They understand that we are basically talking about increasing the productivity of resources: “less in – more out”. They clearly understand that we are talking not only about sustainability concerns, but also about the central question of their future global competitiveness.

We need to change the consumer's behaviour; to work on people's awareness, and to influence their habits.

Basically, as I said, we need to have everybody, you all, on board.

We have already done quite a lot of work on resource efficiency – and later this year we will be publishing a 'roadmap', which will set out in detail how we want to make our complex, multi-layered sectors and economies resource efficient.

Of course, this also includes the chemicals sector, which holds tremendous potential for developing resource efficiency. As we have seen, the current squeeze on resources calls for innovation. But what pushes innovation? Need. We need Innovation when resources are scarce, when energy becomes expensive, when solutions have to be found for an ageing population, when our "disposable" lifestyles are no longer sustainable. As Europe is particularly reliant on imported resources we have no choice but to change.

Europe is home to some of the world's oldest and most successful chemical companies. European inventions drove and continue to drive the chemical sectors. But once again we need to call on that spirit of invention and innovation to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

We will need to use regulations and legislation to push innovation. We have already 'tweaked' REACH to give extra breath for innovators and for the development of new products. It has also created a vast chemical knowledge base. This knowledge should be exploited so that the data sharing system will save time and resources. Tests will not have to be duplicated. Substitution will also foster innovation and research for alternatives for the most dangerous products will be rewarded. But this knowledge must go beyond the immediate objective of safety for every chemical on the market – it must be used to create better knowledge of chemicals in general - a knowledge which will create safer, greener chemicals in the future.

Against this background, I want to ask for your help to push harder for innovation, green growth and resource efficiency.

I know that the past few years have been particularly difficult for the chemicals sector, particularly as we lose ground to countries like China. Clearly innovation could be a means to turn that decline around. We need to grab the opportunity for green innovation and green chemistry. A green chemistry based on the need to limit the creation of waste, uses synthetic methods and less hazardous chemical syntheses.

And now that we are working at full speed getting 136 substances of very high concern on the REACH candidate list by 2012, and even more by 2020, the dream of green chemistry is becoming a reality.

Now is the time to innovate and to substitute these dangerous substances. The recently published second edition of the SIN list1, which also includes substances with endocrine disrupting properties, should indicate to you the substances the European Commission will take into consideration for placement on the candidate list.


Ladies and Gentlemen

We need innovation. To address the need for resource efficiency and to maintain the sustainability of the chemicals industry worldwide. I am proud of the successes of the European chemicals industry, particularly because it is working under the most advanced chemicals legislation in the world. Legislation which is clearly becoming a reference and a model followed by many others globally. I am confident that they will take up the challenge and that under REACH we will see a huge reduction in the use of dangerous chemicals and a range of new and safer substances. It is only by changing our collective behaviour that we will achieve sustainable growth, a real future for the chemicals sector while aiming at the highest levels of protection of health and the environment.

This Forum is an excellent event. It gathers all the right people from that sector - from industry, authorities (from the EU and from outside the EU), NGOs, academia, consumer organisations and workers' organisations.

And we will all have to consider how we need to further change and develop our policies, our way of working and even our personal behaviour, to encourage substitution of dangerous chemicals and to use our resources efficiently.

I said at the beginning chemicals are everywhere … so, we need good chemistry to make chemistry change.

Thank you for your attention.

1 :

The SIN (Substitute It Now!) List is an NGO driven project to speed up the transition to a toxic free world. The List 2.0 consists of 378 chemicals that are identified as Substances of Very High Concern based on the criteria established by REACH..

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