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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Real power lies at the local level

Covenant of Mayors Ceremony - Restoring faith in Europe's future through local sustainable energy

Brussels, 29 November 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to Brussels. It is a pleasure to see so many familiar faces. This has become a recurring appointment to which I personally attribute a lot of importance – because - it gives us the opportunity to have open and sincere discussions on important issues that have a direct impact on our daily lives.

A lot has happened since our last meeting, the financial crisis is putting a lot of people on their knees; families are striving to make ends meet; protests in some countries are growing. It is not easy! We are all well aware of this! And I know that it is not easy for you - who are in the very front line.

It is in these times of difficulties that we need to work even closer together. Share our experiences, share our ideas, our concerns and worries so we can find solutions.

Because – today - Ladies and Gentlemen - we are writing an important chapter of our history. The decisions we will take today and tomorrow will shape our future and that of generations to come.

Our task is not an easy one. But it is a very important one. And I truly believe that this Covenant will play a fundamental role in this.

It is exactly now that we need to learn from the mistakes we made, draw our conclusions and start planning for the future. It is now. Not in six months. Not next year. But now!

One of the evident mistakes that has led to today's financial crisis was living beyond ones means.

Well … we have been doing the same when it comes to the planet's natural resources: (one) we are using more resources than we can afford to use, and (two) we are using resources that do not belong to us – to quote from and ancient American Indian proverb "we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children"… and when the time comes, we should have something to give back to them.

We now see that if only we had had the courage to make – maybe unpopular – but necessary decisions we could have avoided the crisis

So, lets not make the same mistake twice.

This is why I insist so much on the importance of having a 'sustainable growth'. People need jobs, that they will not get if the economies don't grow. But we cannot afford any kind of growth, It has to be a smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. And for this, we need to stay within the limits of our planet and its natural resources. We need to think and plan ahead if we want to prevent an even bigger crisis. A crisis, that will be very difficult - if not impossible - to manage… if we let it happen.

Of course this is not only a European problem, and it will need serious, active engagement at global level. However, I believe that Europe can, and has the duty, to play a leading role.

But, Ladies and Gentlemen, Europe is its people, Europe is you … We, at the European Commission, at the European Parliament, at the Committee of the Regions have limited powers because the real power lies there where it comes to life… in rural areas... but mostly in urban areas … where most people live, consume and produce.

Urban areas are the focal points of the economic, environmental and social challenges facing our society; but they also bring together commitment and innovation to resolve them. Urban development offers unique chances for improved quality of life and environmental protection ….if ….governed effectively.

Large cities face common challenges such as urban-spread, waste, air pollution, efficient transport, stress on water and energy supplies. Successful solutions can affect a great number of citizens, in cities both large and small.

Resource efficiency is one of the pillars of the Europe 2020 strategy for sustainable, smart and inclusive growth. To support the Strategy, last September, we adopted - as you are aware - a Roadmap to a Resource efficient Europe.

With world population forecast to reach 9 billion by 2050 the pressure on our already fragile natural resources will increase considerable. Moving to resource efficient economies will help counter the rising demand for natural resources and the pressures that it brings.

I would like to set out some areas which are particularly important for resource efficiency in cities. This draws upon one of our key findings in the Roadmap: the fact that three key economic sectors are responsible for the greatest share of environmental impacts – food, buildings and mobility.

Cities have a key role to play in the transformation toward a sustainable resource efficient economy. So, you individually, and working collectively in the Covenant, have a key role in this transformation.

First of all, by providing sustainable housing and mobility. This will have a major role in improving water and addressing climate change. But there are other less obvious ways that cities can address resource efficiency: turning waste into precious resources as well as preserving biodiversity in the special urban context.

Second, by improving waste management. This will involve more action on collection, separation, and recycling facilities, as well as better policies on construction and demolition waste. Industrial symbiosis, where the waste of some firms is used by others, is an ideal illustration of the practical implementation of resource efficiency in urban environments. Urban mining may sound like an urban legend, allowing you to get 100 times more gold from a tonne of discarded mobile phones than from a tonne of gold mine ore, but it is in fact a viable option to ensure security of supply and cheaper materials.

Third, by aiming at greater water efficiency. This is necessary if we want to address the major impact of many cities on water both in Europe and globally. We should be moving towards pricing that reflects the true costs of water use, and measures on water saving, as for example avoiding leaks in the distribution network. Energy and water efficiency are closely linked: 30% of our water savings could be generated by efficient buildings. Waste water treatment is also a major issue: urban waste water has a significant effect on marine resources.

Fourth, by improving improved mobility. This is an issue that brings together the economic losses associated with congestion, the environmental impacts of urban transport and the public health objective of increasing the physical activity of citizens. Integrated policies on the planning of urban transport can address all these problems at once. The provision of public transport facilities, car and bicycle leasing or rental facilities and much more are all useful initiatives that go in the right direction.

And last, but not least important, by insisting on Green infrastructure and land use. These are necessary on a range of fronts. Better infrastructure-planning contributes to more efficient mobility and building-policy; the problems of land-take associated with urban life need to be addressed; furthermore, a better assessment of the impacts of planning decisions is needed, together with investment in natural capital – from green areas and biodiversity to flood plains and natural water purification areas.

The question now is: How do we do this?

Well ... we need to establish a longer term vision to improve the quality of life in cities and make fundamental decisions that will allow us to move towards a sustainable resource efficient economy.

Tangible, short and medium-term milestones help us to stay on the right track, avoiding quick fixes and temporary results that satisfy citizens' perceived needs temporarily (such as more parking places) and steer behaviour into a sustainable direction ( for example by developing for example attractive alternatives to private car use). But, they are not sufficient. We need more long-term solutions.

Green public procurement, especially for products with high environmental impacts, is a sector where there is plenty of room for improvement. Purchase decisions should be based on longer term considerations – not always on the cheapest purchase price - but on life-time costs and resource impacts over the life cycle.

Improved forms of governance and partnerships, is another sector where there is room for improvement. But public and private actors need to engage together to start the process.

We need more initiatives like the Covenant of Mayors' initiative on low carbon urban environments to go beyond the EU energy objectives and meet the expectations of city dwellers.

You have been very successful thanks to your good work, credibility and legitimacy. I am certain you can also be successful in making the use of resources in your cities more efficient. For example, by focusing on water efficiency, municipal waste management, recycling, green infrastructure and the restoration of degraded urban ecosystems.

The European Green Capital awards - designed to help stimulate initiatives on resource efficiency in cities - can provide positive examples to cities on what they can do to be greener. Working together, sharing best practice and learning from one another is very important.

…And of course, we also need financial resources. Community funds are ready to play their part. The EU multi-annual financial framework 2014-2020 provides for investments that will be managed by cities. We will also create an urban development platform to promote capacity building and exchange of experience within the European Union. The integrated approach proposed for the new LIFE instrument can help as a catalyst.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I pointed to some possible directions, but you are the ones that will have to write this chapter of our history. You will have to hold the pen because you are the ones that can reflect the specificities of your cities – culture, history, geography, climate, administrative and legal conditions.

And to succeed in this transformation this is exactly what we need. Measures that reflect and respect the specificities of each one of us. We will not find that information in reports, statistics or graphs… You will find this information at home. In your cities. Of course, I know that you cannot manage this transformation alone. Just like I cannot alone, nor anyone in this room. We need to work together. This is what the European Union is all about. We all need to cooperate to develop a shared response to the challenges we face today.

So, lets not wait to discovers that we could have made important decisions earlier. Lets start designing and shaping our future and our present today. I am looking forward to moving towards a concrete cooperation to implement this transformation with you.

Thank you for your attention.

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