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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Resource Efficiency: societal challenge and societal opportunity

Conference on the Common Strategic Framework for Research & Innovation

Brussels, 10 June 2011

As a former Commissioner for Science and Research I feel that
I am amongst old friends here today. And it is said that friends are like wine: the older they get the more joy they bring.

Ladies and Gentlemen…

Whilst the economic crisis is on the front pages of our newspapers, all the other issues that were on our front pages before – climate change, energy security, pandemics - have not gone away. Perhaps a real live crisis is more newsworthy than a "potential crisis", but a potential crisis has the great advantage of being potentially avoidable.

And the question here is: do we really need these crises in order to start looking into the concept of sustainability?

The financial and economic crisis has put sustainability even more strongly on the agenda. Sustainability is no longer an issue of morality only; it is also becoming an issue of self interest. It is no longer merely about how we will leave our planet to future generations, but also about the effect of our behaviour during our own generation or the next one. Our society has been greedy and this has led to imbalances, which create pressures on sustainability. The financial crisis has brought to bare the effect of one structural imbalance, with a rich part of the world engaging in unchecked deficit spending and an emerging part of the world covering the deficits through savings.

It is such type of structural imbalances that pose a threat to sustainability. The main imbalance is that we consume much more of our planet than the planet can bear. Sustainability is about responsibility. Our ability to sustain will depend on our ability to respond to such structural imbalances. It will depend on whether we can and want to change our behaviour, both at global and at local levels in our daily lives. It will hinge on whether we can find a new model of economic development that marries economic, social and environmental objectives: profit, people and planet.


Ladies and Gentlemen…

I have just been reading to you a speech I made just over two years ago. In the days before the Europe 2020 Strategy; in the days when I was still European Commissioner for Science and Research. Now that I am Commissioner for environment you can see that my commitment to recycling even goes as far as my speeches! But of course I have serious reasons for repeating these words.

The first is that Europe 2020 has always been about more than just getting out of the existing crisis by stabilising and consolidating our monetary and fiscal situation. It is about avoiding future crises by transforming our economy to one based on dynamic knowledge-based growth.

My second point is that Europe 2020 stands out from previous structural economic strategies by stating clearly that our growth must be resource efficient. It is not only growth that matters, but the quality of that growth.

And my third message is that research and innovation – itself a central pillar of Europe 2020, as Máire explained in her opening speech this morning – is fundamental to achieving my first two points: knowledge-based and resource efficient growth.

So even as Commissioner for Environment, I must still be a Commissioner for Research and Innovation. Indeed, even if Máire is THE Commissioner for Research and Innovation, I believe that ALL Commissioners must be Commissioners for research and innovation. Because research and innovation is so integral to reaching our policy objectives, and addressing our global challenges.

This session is exactly about that: how we align our future research and innovation policies and programmes to our societal challenges. Let me explain how I see this working in relation to achieving resource efficient growth.

Resource efficiency is a societal challenge on a European and global scale. The limits of our planet mean that we are going to have to become more resource efficient if we like it or not. Our policy choice is whether we get ready now, or whether we wait and then react to crises.

We cannot go on growing the resource-intensive way we did in the past. In the 20th Century the world population grew 4 times, its economic output 40 times. We increased our fossil fuel use by 16 times, our fishing catches by 35, and our water use by 9.

This great acceleration has been a fantastic achievement of the generations of humans that have so successfully mastered so many obstacles to bring such unimagined health and prosperity. But the world's population is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050:- 140 000 more people per day, all aspiring… legitimately… to the same living standards that we enjoy. 140 000 more people a day sharing a planet which will stay the same size. A planet on which most resources are finite; and on which many of the resources that are renewable are already under severe pressure.

We have to turn that same human creativity and innovation that so successfully exploited those resources to provide us with health and prosperity, to rolling out those benefits to billions more people, in ways that exploit those resources less.

The critical problem we face in Europe is that after a few centuries of resource-intensive growth we are "locked-in" to resource inefficient infrastructures, resource inefficient economic and financial systems, resource inefficient business models and resource inefficient behaviour. This is a problem that is not faced by the "BRICs" who are now growing quickly from a low base. If we are to remain competitive we have a major structural transformation to achieve. Breaking out of that lock-in requires new technologies, and it requires innovation. Technological innovation, innovation in our systems and innovation in our behaviour.

I remain optimistic precisely because of our capacity in Europe for creativity and innovation, and because so many of the inefficiencies that we see today can so obviously be tackled by using that creativity and innovation:

  • turning coal into light is still only 3 % efficient,

  • only 15 % of the energy you put in your petrol tank is used to actually move your car down the road,

  • 80 % of what we produce is used once and discarded,

  • 80 % of resources are used by 20 % of the earth's population

  • Only 1 % of the valuable rare earths that we use in products are recycled at the end of the products life.

I am also optimistic because the business case for resource efficiency is clear. As supplies of resources become more difficult, continued competitiveness will mean directing as much energy to increasing resource productivity as we have in the previous decades to increasing labour productivity; in those years when labour seemed so expensive and resources so plentiful. Entrepreneurs are far quicker innovators than bureaucrats, and many have already read the writing on the wall. They also see opportunities in the new markets that will develop for eco-technologies, many of which Europe has a global lead in.

So let us knock on the head once and for all the myth that it is environmental policy that will be a brake on growth and competitiveness. Our future growth and competitiveness will be limited by resource constraints and the carrying capacity of our planet, and it is those who understand that today and adapt their behaviour that will still be in the market tomorrow. "Green growth" is not an oxymoron – growth HAS to be green or there will be no growth.

I don't pretend that research will provide all the answers to decoupling our economic growth from our resource use, but its contribution is particularly strong:

  • Because research produces the knowledge base which allows us to understand our complex world;

  • Because research provides the technologies that can help accelerate the transformation from the post 2nd World War resources-based economy into a knowledge-based society.

  • Because research is a long-term process and requires long-term thinking and strategic planning.

  • Because through its international reach, European research can project its sustainability goals on the rest of the world in a positive, participatory way.

Similarly innovation has a particular contribution to using resources more efficiently and reducing the effects of our consumption:

  • Because innovation brings the enabling technologies to the market.;

  • Because innovation involves changes in the way we live, produce and consume;

  • Because innovation requires partnerships of public and private stakeholders

After the summer break we will adopt our Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe. In it you will certainly see that research and innovation will be central to achieving our 2020 objectives and our 2050 vision.

  • Whether it is through the use of smart legislation to provide the clear signals and market predictability for businesses to invest in the right technologies and models.

  • Whether it is through market-based and fiscal incentives to reduce resource use.

  • Whether it is through development of sustainable production and consumption instruments such as eco-design, eco-labelling, green public procurement and environmental auditing.

  • Whether it is through the development of financial instruments.

  • Whether it is through the development of innovation partnerships related to key resources – such as water or raw materials – or to policy areas such as agriculture where resources are put under pressure.

Also later this summer we will adopt the Eco-Innovation Action Plan that we announced in the Innovation Union flagship. In that you will see tools to tackle specific eco-innovation bottlenecks.

So the fantastic potential of research and innovation is clear, not only in relation to the resource efficiency societal challenge, but in relation to ageing populations, sustainable agriculture, clean energy and transport, and indeed in relation to all societal challenges. So I can support fully the efforts to align our research and innovation instruments and policies to those challenges.

But there is an important danger. We must not allow that potential to be frustrated by being locked-in to old structures. Making all of this happen means that we must break out of the silos that too often obstruct efficiency, effectiveness and specialisation.

  • Silos within the Commission between policy areas and instruments;

  • Silos between the Community and Member States levels;

  • Silos between the public and private sectors.


Ladies and gentlemen…

I have always argued that investments in innovation and research are not a luxury that we can afford only in times of prosperity. We cannot simply forget our commitments to invest in research because of a sudden crisis. On the contrary; as we pick ourselves off the ground and knock the dust off our clothes, it is the ideal time to define our future growth path and to invest in it. That path must be towards a society that derives more prosperity from knowledge, such a society will be a more sustainable one, because it will be able to do more with less. And our challenge is to do exactly that: to do more… with less.

But in order to successfully meet that challenge, we need more research and innovation and an EU budget that is up the challenge.

Thank you.

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