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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Resource efficiency is not a choice, it is inevitable

OECD Ministerial Meeting of the Environment Policy Committee

Brussels, 30 March 2012

Our choice is whether to become resource efficient now, or wait until we are forced because critical resources are exhausted and expensive.

During the 20th century the world population grew four times, its economic output 40 times. We increased our fossil fuel use 16 fold, our fishing catches by a factor of 35 and our water use 9-fold. It was called the “great acceleration”, but I am afraid that we might hit the wall soon.

However, this resource-intensive growth was not enough to deal with appalling poverty in many parts of the world, and is not sustainable enough to ensure economic prosperity and well-being in the future.

The "business as usual" scenario tells us that we will need three times more resources by 2050. But already 60 % of the world’s major ecosystems on which these resources depend are degraded or are used unsustainably. So "Business as usual" is not an option.

Resource efficiency is good for growth

Resource efficiency policies build on the understanding that our economic and environmental systems can no longer be treated apart. There is no point in addressing the debt of the financial system without also addressing the debt of our ecological system: we need natural capital as much as financial capital. Part of the solution to that has to be through green growth. Improved resource efficiency can cut costs, boost productivity and stimulate growth. The McKinsey Resource report shows how we could save $ 3 billion a year by 2030 by using resources more productively.

At a global level, resource efficiency can help ensure that developing countries aspiring rightly to achieve the standards of living found in some industrialized nations are able to do so within the carrying capacity of our planet.

We need to transform our economies

Resource efficiency can help deliver smart growth. There is untapped potential to use our natural resources better. Our economy needs to use not only minerals, metals and energy better, but also water, fertile soil, fish, biodiversity, and numerous ecosystem services we used to take for granted. These resources should be used efficiently at every stage of their lifecycle, and along value chains that often spread across the globe.

But the transformation of our economy requires action in a wide range of policy domains: from energy, transport, construction and agriculture to combating climate change, preserving biodiversity and ecosystem services. The emphasis is therefore on integration between resources and economic sectors and seeking the right policy mix of regulatory, market and voluntary measures.

In particular, our strategy seeks to correct market failures. To ensure that price signals point consumers and producers alike in the right direction. We want to do this, because there is one thing that we know is essential for really transforming the world economy. This is the ability of business to innovate – the most powerful force at work in the global economy.

One element should be a major shift from taxation of labour towards environmental taxation. And cutting environmentally harmful subsidies. The OECD has done some really useful work on fossil fuel subsidies with the IEA. Looking all resource subsidies in the world, the McKinsey estimates show there are up to $ 1 trillion a year already. Sometimes the best thing we can do is simply to stop doing harmful things.

Green Growth Link to Rio

We need a new global model of growth that reverses negative environmental trends and also drives future prosperity and job creation. An inclusive, green economy must be one of main vehicles to achieve sustainable development, not only in OECD countries but also globally. This is is essential to promote long term equitable with better health and more jobs, and on the way to eradicating poverty.

Investing in protecting ecosystems and biodiversity is a development agenda: 2 billion of the poorest people on our planet depend directly on ecosystems such as dry grasslands and forests for basic needs.

The outcome of Rio+20 should be a green economy roadmap with timetables for specific goals, objectives and actions at the international level, with emphasis on poverty eradication and food security.

There is also a need to integrate our ongoing efforts to tackle climate change, loss of biodiversity and land degradation. A solution to one should be a solution to all.

That's why we in the EU are proposing to focus on targets in five areas in particular: sustainable energy, water efficiency, the fight against land degradation and protecting our oceans – all of which are vital for food security - and moving to a zero waste, resource-efficient economy.

We need a positive vision

International efforts towards sustainability have to be aligned along a positive vision of a green global economy and society that is competitive, inclusive and ensures a good quality of life for all, while respecting resource constraints and planetary boundaries and valuing all the resources it relies upon - from raw materials to energy, water, air, biodiversity, land and soil.

We have our regional, national and even local differences and specific challenges. But we have one planet. Therefore it is important that we base our efforts to achieve a sustainable future on a positive concept of a global green economy, giving an impetus for the necessary transformation.

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