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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Resource challenges for Europe

Second World Resources Forum

Davos, 19 September 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to have the opportunity to exchange views today with such an eminent audience on such an important subject.

The world is evolving in many ways and like with any evolution we must adapt and evolve with it. The era of plentiful and cheap resources is coming to an end. Raw materials, water, air, biodiversity and terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems are all under pressure.

And this pressure will only continue to grow in the coming years. The world's population is increasing by around 200,000 people a day, and is likely to reach 9 billion by 2050. And many of these people rightly aspire to higher standards of living. To the same we in Europe enjoy today. This means that by 2050 demand for food, feed and fibre is forecast to increase by 70%. And yet 60% of our ecosystems underpinning these resources are already degraded.

As we don't have another planet the only option we have is to find ways to live within its limits. We need to use our creativity and ingenuity to use limited resources more efficiently.

During the 20th Century, the world increased its fossil fuel use and extraction of material resources by a factor of ten, whereas, the world population only grew by four times. Most of that resource use was in Europe and North America. In the EU, for instance, today we use some 16 tonnes of materials per person each year, of which 6 tonnes become waste; then half of that is buried as landfill.

With a world population of 1.5 billion 100 years ago this growth path was probably fine. It gave us health, wellbeing and wealth. But with a population of 7 or 9 billion it is no longer so. We cannot continue like this. We need to call for radical change in the way we operate, in the way we produce and consume - basically - in the way we live.

… And change is all about innovation, isn't it? … And you - as leading innovators and scientists - have a very important role to play in giving form and shape to this process and help accelerate the progress in addressing this major challenge.

Moving towards becoming a resource efficient society is no longer a choice, it is inevitable, it is only a question of time.

Our choice is whether to take the lead, define and shape this transition, or wait until we are forced to do it, when our critical resources will have been exhausted and adaptation will be difficult and expensive.

I would say that the answer is clear…

I know that many of you would say that just being more efficient will not be enough, given the trends in global resource use. I agree with you!

The resource efficiency agenda for me is about 'real or absolute decoupling'. It is about reducing overall resource use and the impacts of that resource use from economic activities, to sustainable levels. It is about implementing the aspiration of sustainable development.

The critical problem we face in Europe today is that after centuries of resource-intensive growth, we are "locked-in" to resource inefficient structures, "locked-in" to resource inefficient economic systems, "locked-in" to resource inefficient business models and "locked-in" to resource inefficient behaviour.

Breaking out of that "lock-in" requires new technologies, and it requires innovation: technological innovation, innovation in our systems and business models, and innovation in our behaviour.

This means incentivising and supporting innovation towards resource efficiency…. We are well aware of this. This is why Europe's innovation strategy - adopted last year - is all about getting innovation support and funding in line with the global and societal challenges we face. One of these is exactly making our economy and society resource efficient.

I strongly believe that there is a huge margin for increasing the efficiency of our resource use through research and innovation.

Research allows us to better understand our complex world; in providing the technologies that can help accelerate the decisive societal and technological transition to an economy based on a sustainable relationship between nature and human well-being; and it can make an important contribution in projecting, through its international reach, its sustainability goals in a positive, participatory way.

Similarly, I believe that innovation can make an equally important contribution in bringing the enabling technologies to the market and to enhancing changes in the way we live, produce and consume.

The question now is how do we do this in practice? As some of you might be aware tomorrow the Commission will launch the Roadmap for a Resource Efficient Europe.

The Roadmap is not just about resource productivity, but about reducing environmental impacts. The objective is to decouple resource use and impact from growth. It is not just about technology. It is also about changing behaviour, so that we Reduce, Re-use, and Recycle. And, it is not about Europe becoming a service economy - we need to dematerialise, not de-industrialise.

Resource efficiency is a very demanding and complex concept leading to a fundamental change of our production and consumption. We do not pretend that the Roadmap will provide all the necessary answers, but we do hope that it will mark the beginning of a coherent, organised and irreversible process leading to a resource efficient future.

And how can we transform our resource-intensive economies into resource efficient economies? Allow me to quickly highlight the four main challenges we need to tackle:

  • First, we live in market economies, and if we really want to change behaviour we need to use market signals; that means, we have to get the prices right. We need prices that reflect the real value of resources. That is why we call on countries for a shift in the tax base from jobs to resources and pollution.

  • Second, we must also get rid of subsidies that perpetuate inefficient and environmentally damaging consumption. We can no longer afford to pay twice: first to subsidise "dirty" behaviour, and a second time around to repair the damage.

  • Third, we must also encourage companies to develop sustainable products, services and processes. I believe that getting the prices right will already encourage such innovation. Just as companies found ingenious ways to improve labour productivity when labour costs were increasing and resources were cheap, so they will be creative and effective in increasing resource productivity as resource costs rise.

  • But we should also actively support eco-innovation and eco-design through public policy, especially when we need to address the public good. We can stimulate the demand for better products and services, through better labelling and better standards, through green public procurement and through more information on the life cycle impacts of products.

  • The research and business community has a big role to play in helping assess the environmental performance of production and products and manage these in a resource efficient way.

  • And fourth, we need to focus on housing, transport and food. Around 80% of the impact of our lifestyles – on resources as well as climate change - comes from these areas, including the energy we use up in these sectors.

I truly believe that there is a case to be made globally for economic transformation moving us towards resource efficient societies. Resource constraints – for example in water, energy and raw materials – will not only be a potential brake on the development of many economies, but a threat to stability and peace. However by valuing the natural capital properly these countries could decrease the pressure on resources, boost innovation and for those who have resources in abundance follow more beneficial development paths. Resource scarcity is a global problem, and it requires a global response. The scale, complexity and trans-national nature of the changes needed make this clear.

The Rio+20 Summit in June 2012 will be the perfect venue to agree on the steps necessary to start a global transition to a green, resource efficient economy. We must all be on board to be able to obtain tangible and lasting results.

We must also give the private sector the confidence and predictability to invest in a growth path towards a society that can do more with less, a society that derives more prosperity and wellbeing from knowledge, a society that lives within our planetary boundaries.

Being an environmentalist today can no longer be about opting out and living an alternative lifestyle. It is about opting in and setting about changing all our lifestyles.

Being a successful business today cannot be about cutting corners to get maximum short term returns. It has to be about adding value in sustainable ways in a longer term. Doing more with less becomes the competitive advantage in the 21st Century.

So environmentalists and businesses today have a common cause and must work together.

And environmental policy for the future must not just be about protecting the environment from business, but also about using business to protect the environment.

Thank you for your attention.

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