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European Commissioner for Environment
"Resource efficiency – Using less, living better"
Opening address at Green Week 2011
Brussels, 24 May 2011
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Green Week 2011 and thank you for joining us.
The theme of this year's Green Week is resource efficiency. But before hearing from experts from around Europe and the world about resource efficiency, I want to share with you a secret. Resource efficiency is basically common sense.
But, who would deliberately set out to be resource inefficient? Especially when many resources – metals, fuels, water, and soil – are so vital to our livelihoods and quality of life, and so obviously not available in limitless quantities. And even more especially when our populations are growing so fast, and our needs and wants even faster.
We have often heard the U.N. forecast that by 2050 there could be 9 billion people on this planet. But when you break this number down, it becomes even more startling – it means that every day there are an additional 140,000 mouths to feed, clothe and provide for. Many struggle for basic survival, and many work to better themselves…many aspire to own those cars, computers, flat screen TVs, ipads and ipods, many aspire to travel – the kind of things many of us seem to take for granted.
Yet, in spite of this, and in spite of the fact we are clearly overusing this planet's resources many times over, we are still being so inefficient. Maybe common sense just isn't so common after all?
What drives us to throw away perfectly good food? Why do many of us spend good money heating badly insulated houses? Why don't we fix broken things instead of just buying replacements? Why do fishermen overfish the sea when the evidence is clear that they are exhausting their own future livelihood? It isn't because those consumers, or those fishermen, don't have common sense. It is because we are locked into systems, infrastructures, policies and habits that were designed for days when resources and ecosystems were not under such threat.
How has this happened?
In many ways it has happened without us even realizing it – well not until the last fifty years or so. Our habits have evolved over generations and are constantly changing as our societies grow and develop. In many cases we behave inefficiently because it has become the norm. In many cases our society actually encourages inefficient behaviour, as material consumption is commonly associated with increasing wealth. So I don't think that people have an unspoken agenda to destroy the planet; I simply believe that 'old habits die hard'; it is difficult to change the way we behave. We are 'locked-in' to resource inefficient behaviour. We have to break out.
Humans mostly have common sense. That is one of the reasons they have been so successful. But now we have an opportunity to steer this pragmatic spirit in a direction which will benefit the planet, rather than running it down.
It will be a difficult transition. And we will all have to change our behaviour in ways we might not have expected to a few decades ago.
Take over-fishing as an example. Here solid scientific advice says that if we fish less now, within a few years, we can actually catch more fish than now, with less work. The problem is, if we pause to allow fish stocks to grow, how will fishermen pay for their boats or feed their families? It simply isn't practical to take it into account on a day-to-day basis. Nor indeed, does it seem to be within the time horizons of many politicians and the policy making framework.
I used fishing as an example deliberately. Last year our Green Week theme was 'biodiversity – our lifeline'. An appropriate subject during the Year of Biodiversity in 2010. And this year it is an appropriate subject in the context of resource efficiency. Last year we took bold - and internationally agreed - steps to halt biodiversity loss in Nagoya. And when you think of what biodiversity is – when you consider that we have to protect it for its intrinsic value – you then come right back again to resources. Ecosystems and biodiversity provide services…services that are resources. Resources which soak up carbon emissions, pollinate our plants, provide flood protection and provide jobs. Protecting biodiversity is a matter of self preservation – and so is resource efficiency.
There are many other barriers to resource efficiency: … economic disincentives, … restrictive legislation, … old infrastructures, … missing skills. All of these can act as bottlenecks.
Many resources have been so cheap for so long that we assume they are plentiful, or at least not under threat. But their price does not bear any relation to their real value. And if the environmental costs are not factored in, how can the market be expected to take this into account? If it is cheaper to landfill waste and buy all the raw materials again to make more stuff, then why bother to recycle?
The very foundations of the systems in which consumers and businesses operate – energy, industry, transport - will need to fundamentally change. This is the transformational agenda called for in the Europe 2020 economic strategy. This is why the flagship Initiative for "a resource efficient Europe" is a pillar of Europe 2020.
During this Green Week we have the opportunity to examine together how we can make this transformation happen. We will ask crucial questions about the policies and measures needed to bring about the transformation in our economies, and the transformation in our behaviour. And I will be here to listen to your ideas and answers. To get inspiration.
Green Week is not simply a shop window. This is a genuine opportunity for you to contribute to the construction of a new resource efficient European structure, which complements the sustainable development agenda and makes it operational.
Don't misunderstand resource efficiency. It is not just about making our resources go a little further – this would be underestimating the level of change needed, it would be just delaying the inevitable. It is about making our resource-use sustainable, so that we can stay within the Earth's limits in the long-term.
Making waste a key resource is vital in this regard. We mustn't wait for resources, such as rare earth metals, to run out before we start valuing them. We must use them wisely now and recycle and reuse them – and increase their economic value over their whole lifecycle. We must learn from the best performing countries, some of whom are recycling at nearly 100%. Are those countries that sort their waste, that recycle, that compost, that tax landfill, … are those countries crippled with the costs of doing so? Of course not. They have tapped into the value of their own waste. They have successful, progressive recycling industries, working at the cutting edge of innovation and technology. They have new businesses supplying recovered materials as new raw materials for other industries.
This should be the norm across Europe and a positive example for others to follow.
As you might imagine, my take on sustainability and resource efficiency policies always starts from an environmental perspective – but not a purely environmental perspective. I firmly believe that by protecting our environment and our biodiversity we are protecting ourselves and future generations. But I never lose sight of the fact that environmental, social and economic polices are so deeply linked that one cannot develop as if the others did not exist.
The value of resource efficiency is that it brings these areas together and makes their connections more obvious. Efficient use of resources can help us in achieving policy goals in all these areas. In a vast majority of cases longer-term planning with resources in mind leads not only to environmental protection, but also to very sound economic and social policy. This is what I meant when I spoke about resource efficiency as a further and practical implementation of sustainable development. The evolution of the footprint of our resource use on the rest of the world will also have a real impact on future global security and stability.
Using Less – getting more value from less - will mean living better. And there is a clear business case for it. Using less today means saving money, but also having more for the future. It means doing less damage now, so systems can recover. It also means more resilience to future fluctuations in markets and to changes in environmental conditions. Preserving our eco-systems, and the services they provide, will increase our resilience to climate change, as well as combating it. Increased efficiency builds stability, while bringing opportunities for improving our lives in many ways.
If you are looking for a definition of 'green growth', this must be it.
Green Week…Green Growth. This week is all about how we build a truly green economy by 2020; fulfilling the ambition of our 2020 Strategy. How can we break down the barriers that are holding us back? How can we transform production and consumption, our governance structures, the food and construction sectors? How should we address resource inefficient subsidies and get the prices right to support sustainable growth? What options do we have for financing this transition? What are the innovative business models that can be taken forward to create competitive and more sustainable supply chains? Yes, we need at lest a week to cover it all…
I said earlier how I viewed the range of policies we need to change as deeply linked. This is why, with my fellow Commissioners, we have to improve the synergies between our policies. We need to ensure that resource efficiency is built into our policies. It is why also national ministries, regional administrations and cities must build resource efficiency into their own policies and actions.
Our job will be keep our commitment strong and public while steering the policy direction in a straight line – we know that people need to be certain about our policies and that's what we will work for. We need to work with the interests and motivations of the market – and we will do it, to get the policies right.
Because Resource Efficiency goes so far beyond the boundaries of traditional environmental policy, the debates you will be following in the coming days are likely to be different from what regular Green Week goers are used to. Issues will be presented from new perspectives.
I hope this will succeed in promoting a wide acceptance of the need for a Resource Efficiency policy agenda among environmental, business and civil society communities alike. I want this because we need it. And because one thing is certain: resource efficiency is inevitable – today, tomorrow and in the future.
On Friday morning I will take the floor here again. It will be an opportunity to take stock and to see to what we have achieved during the week.
So … let's make Green Week the real beginning of a real common sense revolution!
Thank you for your attention.