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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

"If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change"

European Voice Innovation Forum

Brussels, 5 October 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen,

"If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change". Those wise words come from "The Leopard" by Tomasi di Lampedusa. He could not be more right.

Of course we want to continue to enjoy the same high living standards, exotic holidays, good food, and the latest consumer gadgets.


  • with 200,000 more people sharing our planet every day,

  • with billions in the developing world aspiring to our living standards,

  • and with many natural resources already depleted or under stress,

if we want things to stay the same, things will have to change, and indeed we will have to change.

We will have to change the way we produce and the way we consume, the way we travel around and the way we eat. Because we are starting to reach more and more of the boundaries of sustainable use of our resources. And because in our increasingly resource constrained world the only way that developing countries can grow, and that we can continue to grow, is by decoupling that growth from resource use.

Europe’s industrialisation and growth was built on abundant and cheap resources. In the 20th century whilst the planets population multiplied by 4, our economies grew by 40 times, our material use by 10 times, our fossil fuel use 16 times, our fish catches by 35 times and our water use by 9 times. But, what worked well in the 19th and 20th centuries, will not work in the 21st century; neither for rich countries or the “getting-richer” countries. The days of cheap and plentiful resources are over.

We will all have to adapt to this coming reality, but for Europe the challenge is in some ways greater as we are locked in to our old growth paradigm. We are locked into resource inefficient infrastructure; we are locked in to resource inefficient production, we are locked into resource inefficient policies, and financial systems, and we are locked into resource inefficient habits.

We need to redesign and reshape our infrastructures, economic and financial systems, business models and behaviour. We need to change if we want to continue to be the same.

Although that is a huge task I am convinced that we can do it, because in Europe the one resource that we have in plentiful supply is resourcefullness itself. Change is not easy when you are locked in to old ways, but innovation, imagination and creativity are the key to open the lock.

That is why the link between resource efficiency and innovation is so essential. And that is why the European growth strategy – Europe 2020 – has as two of its flagships the Innovation Union and the Resource Efficiency flagship.

Europe 2020 sets out to create a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy. Economic, social and environmental sustainability are deeply interlinked and interdependent. We cannot for very long pursue one and ignore the others; we need to take care of profits, people and planet.

We need to secure a sustainable future and that means living within our means. In our economies we have been seeing the results of eating into our capital and accumulating debt. So it is with our environmental sustainability. We will hit crises when we eat into our natural capital. This year on September 27th we reached the limit of the resources that we could sustainably consume in. So today on 5th October we are already living on borrowed time, we are eating into our natural capital.

To find our way out of our debts and build public finances, we will need growth, but as I have explained resource constraints may limit that growth, so today we must consider what kind of growth we want and set out on the right trajectory.

What we need is resource efficient growth. Growth that saves resources wherever possible, growth that seeks to dematerialise production and consumption patterns, growth that values resources in a realistic manner, and growth where recycling and reuse are second nature.

We need to focus on the long-term restructuring of our economies.

It will be those economies and those companies that are able to use resources more efficiently, to dematerialise, to use alternatives, to recycle, that will have the competitive edge in the future. Already today materials are costing more than twice as much as labour on the balance sheets of manufacturing companies.

I am convinced that this fact, and the rising costs of resources, will on their own be the major catalyst for innovation into resource efficiency in the future. In the days of cheap resources and expensive labour, European companies built their international competitiveness on multiplying labour productivity. Now they will start to deploy the same innovation and creativity to multiplying resource productivity. The challenge is still how to do more with less, but this time we are talking about less resources, not less manpower.

But as I am sure this audience knows well, there are bottlenecks to innovation, and even if this transformation will eventually happen on its own, we must consider how we can make that change come about more quickly and smoothly.

For a start we must provide clear signals to the private and public sectors that resource efficiency is our direction of travel for the coming years, so that we provide the predicable conditions for investments in that direction. Our roadmap for resource efficiency – adopted last month (20th September) – was designed to show that direction. It provides a vision of where we want to be in 2050, with milestones and actions to lead us there.

The roadmap also shows where we need to concentrate our efforts: on where we live, what we eat and how we move around. Three areas that together account for up to 80 % of the impact of our resource use.

Then if we expect relative prices to influence decisions on investment, production and consumption – to lead to a rational allocation of scarce resources – we must make sure that those prices reflect the true value of those resources. That means we must eliminate environmentally harmful subsidies and start to shift from taxing jobs towards taxing resources.

Legislation must also provide an incentive to innovation and not be a brake on it. Take for example our waste legislation, it is giving a clear obligation to move away from landfill and towards reusing, recycling, composting, anaerobic digestion and energy recovery.

Standards also provide clear incentives, for example generating confidence in quality of recycled materials and thereby increasing demand for them.

By setting benchmarks of environmental performance, the Ecodesign directive has made a range of products more efficient in the use phase as well, reducing emission and saving money to EU citizens. The first 9 Ecodesign measures adopted will allow by 2020, yearly savings equivalent to nearly 13 % of present EU electricity consumption. This means that this instrument alone is taking the EU closer to its 2020 energy efficiency target.

Just imagine that we get these kinds of results not only for energy efficiency, but for wider resource efficiency.

And on the demand side, another opportunity to make our product policies work better is to align the European Ecolabel, Energy Label and Green Public Procurement criteria, thus creating a larger, more accessible and simplified market for sustainable products.

We will be certainly using and scaling up some of these existing instruments. And we will be making sure that the innovation partnerships now being developed tackle the innovation gaps for resource efficiency. We are already closely involved in developing candidate partnerships for raw materials and recycling, and for water efficiency.

Resource efficiency must be integrated across research and innovation programmes. It will be a grand societal challenge for Horizon 2020. And to complement the broader innovation framework and tackle the more specific challenges and bottlenecks we will in the coming weeks adopt a dedicated Eco-Innovation Action Plan.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The green technology sector is growing rapidly in Europe and in many areas European companies have a lead on world markets. But although these companies are providing many of the enabling technologies, resource efficiency means transforming the wider economy. There are already thousands of examples of companies, individuals and administrations reducing their impact on the environment and resource use through straightforward innovation.

Take for example Ecoprint, a small Estonian company that has introduced the first environmentally printing service on the Estonian market, by using rain water to reduce water consumption by as much as 60 %.

Or Mahou, a large Spanish brewing company which has reduced landfill disposal of waste by over 90 % through better awareness of waste segregation; and CO2 emissions by 45 % through an energy management system.

Or the University of Eberswalde, which uses green IT, choosing computers and servers on the basis of their energy consumption and their ability to be dismantled and recycled.

Examples like these demonstrate the levels of efficiency that can be gained by innovative attitudes.

This is the kind of imagination and innovation that will make the transition happen and allow us, and future generations, to continue enjoying the same living standards we enjoy today.

"If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change". So let’s make those necessary changes.

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