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European Commission

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

The importance of a holistic approach to key resources

President of the General Assembly - Thematic Debate 'Sustainable development and climate change: practical solutions in the Energy-Water nexus'

UN, New-York, 16 May 2013

Mr President of the General Assembly, Mr Under-Secretary-General, Excellency Dr Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, Excellencies, Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank you for this initiative and for the opportunity given to me to share my views on these important questions.

We all acknowledge the importance of managing well our natural resources. Today we will be discussing two that are key to our economic activities, well being and quite frankly our survival – water and energy. We are increasingly aware of the importance of understanding how they interact, and we hope to hear more about practical examples and the importance of holistic approach to turning challenges they pose into opportunities in the course of this thematic debate. But I would like to bring in also the importance of holistically looking at other key resources, such as land, forests and oceans that equally constitute the foundations of any economy and the well-being of any society. This is because the livelihoods of all people across the world depend on them, especially in developing countries, where the lack of access to quality resources is an important underlying cause of poverty and very often a question of survival.

The Rio+20 Summit confirmed the strong link between sustainable development and eradication of poverty for this very same reason. Because addressing poverty is also about access to fresh drinking water, to healthy food, to a healthy environment, and to sustainable energy.

The past decades have witnessed important positive global trends. A number of developing countries have become major economic and political players and are assuming new responsibilities. We should all welcome that.

If well managed, these trends clearly show the promise of prosperity for many people. But, to fulfill this promise the way the economy grows will need to change. Reproducing the same economic growth model that was possible in a world with a population of one billion will accelerate environmental degradation and aggravate climate change. The consequences will be severe for all of us, and risk being even more severe for the poorest countries which rely most heavily on these resources for their day-to-day survival.

It goes without saying that we in the developed world will be the first to change the unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. And we in Europe are doing that and are determined to continue. It is a matter of necessity and credibility.

The answer is of course not to stop growth but to ensure the right kind of growth. One that will allow us to meet the demands for decent lives for a global population set to grow by over a third by 2050, while at the same time addressing environmental pressures. Ignoring the planet's physical limits will undermine the world’s ability to meet these demands.

Let me come back to water and energy.

Water and energy are without any doubt important issues in their own right, but we cannot treat them in isolation. They are strongly linked and inter-dependent in nature but also in most of the world’s economies.

I expect we will hear many good examples of their interdependence and ways of dealing with them during today's debate.

Let me give just two.

Energy supply chain depends on water: in fuel production, in electricity generation, in energy end use. But energy production also impacts on the state of water resources. The energy sector represents more than 40% of the total water abstraction in the EU.

At the same time water is becoming a more and more limited resource. Already today freshwater scarcity is a serious issue. More than a billion people don't have access to clean water, some 6,000 children die every day from water borne diseases. Water use is projected to increase by 50% by 2025, by which time roughly 5.5 billion people – two thirds of the projected global population – will live in areas facing moderate to severe water stress. And it is estimated that global energy demand will grow by more than 30% over the period to 2035.

If we further add to this the impacts of climate change and increasing temperatures, the interaction of the demands placed by global population growth, and the effects of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, we can see that in reality the water-energy nexus actually points to a broader complex set of inter-relations, that cannot be ignored.

This goes to show that we need to have an integrated approach to managing resources effectively and efficiently. We must and can have policies that address water, energy, air, land, food production, climate change and consumption patterns. Water scarcity is already a serious issue in some European countries, and even more so in many other parts of the world. People that do not have access to clean water and sanitation, will be the ones that will pay the highest price, if we decide to do nothing. The poor are most often the first to experience pressure on their livelihoods, and they are also those that have the least capacity to respond.

This shows why the debate today is also very important to the broader discussion taking place today in New York and in our capitals: How to develop the post 2015 framework.

Eradicating poverty and ensuring that prosperity and well-being are sustainable are two of the most pressing challenges the world faces today.

We need an inclusive framework to set out a path from poverty towards prosperity and well-being, for decent life for all people and all countries, one that will respect the limits of our planet.

Already some years ago, Johan Rockstrom who will speak later today underlined in his landmark article in Nature: "Although the planetary boundaries are described in terms of individual quantities"…(Climate change, Oceans, biodiversity loss, etc) …" these boundaries are tightly coupled. We do not have the luxury of concentrating our efforts on one of them in isolation from others". Similar messages are echoed in Grigg's paper in Nature earlier this year.

In a future framework we will need to set goals and targets in specific areas, there is little doubt about it. If we want to see concrete results this needs to be clear. But at the same time we will also need to ensure that we do not create a “set of silos” of completely separate goals. One of the criticisms to MDGs, despite their many strengths, is exactly that they did not take into account the impact one had on the other. This is particularly true of the numerous interactions of natural resources with many aspects of human life: water and air with health, health of land and oceans with food, management of resources with jobs and livelihoods...

Today's discussion on water and energy is an excellent example of why and how this is important. Just as we have seen the importance of the interactions of energy and water, I believe sustainable development goals need to be able to deal with a broad range of interactions that address complementary and competing needs.

We, the world community will need to think carefully - not only on how goals and targets, for example on health and jobs and livelihoods and on land, water, energy, and the oceans, could drive progress in themselves, but also on how to address their interdependencies. Likewise we can see that we need coherence with already defined international objectives such as the Aichi targets on biodiversity and those on climate change – in particular the agreed objective to keep global temperature increase below 2°C.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Even if a number of our ambitions have not been fully achieved in Rio, we have reached a common agreement on which we can and must work on in our progress towards post 2015 framework. Most importantly, we have succeeded in developing a strong basis for a human centered agenda, based on the need to drive out poverty and ensure decent life for all, on human rights, greater equality and greater respect for the limits of the planet we all rely on. It is now up to us to define and take this agenda forward. And we can only do it together.

Thank you for your attention.

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