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European Commission

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

The world won’t wait for elections

European Environment Bureau’s Annual Conference

Brussels, 18 October 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have gotten to know each other quite well over the last four years. It is a real pleasure for me to open this session and to trace that path with you and see how - together - we can leave the crisis behind us and accelerate the transition to a greener Europe. You know that it is a subject which I have made a priority for my mandate.

Last year’s EEB annual conference focused on Europe's commitment to sustainable development in the aftermath of the Rio Earth Summit. Rio+20 was not the end of a process, but the beginning of a process that will lead us to a more sustainable and prosperous future. This year’s Conference should take us a step closer to that future we committed to in Rio.

We have known for a long time that our economic activities have an impact on the environment. But it has been considered rather as a series of local problems. Our reaction has generally been "command and control" rules. Today that has changed. Not only in the European Union but worldwide. Rio has confirmed this. The scale of economic activities required to feed extra billions and to feed their other hunger – hunger for consumer goods – means that the pressures on the environment have gone from local to global. Not only that. Today we see not only the impact on our environment of economic activities, but also the impact on our economy of the constraints and boundaries of the environment. We have finally started to understand that protecting the environment is not hampering growth's and jobs prospect. On the contrary, tomorrow's growth will depend on our ability to respond to growing environmental pressures.

This is clearly reflected in the European Union’s decision to place resource efficiency at the centre of Europe’s economic growth strategy, and the Resource Efficiency Roadmap which sets out the path towards a resource-efficient society. And let me just quote from the last Annual Growth Survey (2013): "This process is not only about a return to growth but is also about building the basis for a different quality of growth following the crisis. Structural reforms at national and EU level must strengthen the EU's ability to compete globally, generating growth at home through activities which are sustainable and which equip the EU with the policies and instruments needed to secure a prosperous, inclusive and resource efficient future".

You know the story well and I know the story well. And I am increasingly starting to hear the same message coming from other mouths. The world’s most important economic institutions, such as OECD, IMF and the World Bank, which many consider as being the cradle of policy making based on market economy and liberal thoughts, seem to understand this message as well. Last month in New York during the opening of the first meeting of UN High Level Political Forum the Managing Director of IMF, Christine Lagarde said: “Our planet faces a triple challenge: from economic instability, from environmental damage, and from insufficient equity. We must tackle them together. How? Three priorities: (i) get the economic foundations right; (ii) get the pricing for a green economy right; (iii) get equity right. ”

During the same event, Jim Yong Kim the President of the World Bank mentioned that … "Over the last twenty years economic growth has lifted more than 660 million people out of poverty. We have seen significant progress on literacy, life expectancy, nutrition, as well as infant child and maternal mortality. But these gains in economic growth left millions behind and come at a cost to our environment and our economies. According to the World Bank analyses of some 40 countries, environmental degradation is, on average, costing countries the equivalent of 8% of GDP. And we also know that climate change in our lifetime threatens to roll back the gains we made… The evidence is that green and inclusive growth is not only necessary and efficient, it is also affordable."

But – this message, this story - we must go on repeating and repeating it again and again. This is where I really need your help, and I will try to tell you how in a couple of minutes.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

Many people seem to think that this Commission is already finished. That nothing will really happen now. We waited for the German elections, now we wait for the European elections, and then for the new Commission to be nominated.

Well, as far as I'm concerned, this Commission's mandate finishes on the 1st of November next year, more than a year from now and we will continue our work. I will continue my work. The planetary boundaries don't care about elections. And of course our environmental policies need to be fit for purpose. This is in our own interest.

Let me though tell you a little about my plans for the green economy in the next year. As you may know, in the next year we will review the targets in our waste legislation, we will carry out a fitness check on waste legislation, we will specifically address sustainable food and sustainable buildings, and we will take stock of the actions and initiatives we have taken so far to achieve the milestones that we set in the Roadmap for Resource Efficiency. All of these elements will feed into a coherent package on Resource Efficiency and Circular Economy which we will deliver before next summer.

To tie all of these elements together in a coherent way I plan to publish a communication to accompany this package. This is not supposed to be a legacy document, so we do not intend to repeat what has already been said or has already been done.

It will be forward looking.

It will reflect the recommendations of the European Resource Efficiency Platform, such as improving the product policy framework, developing green public procurement, helping SMEs improve their performance and developing the circular economy.

It will also build on the work of the Finance Round Table.

It will make a convincing case for a headline target for resources based on raw material consumption to be integrated into the Europe 2020 strategy review.

It will set out the other indicators we need to measure progress in resource efficiency, but also make the case for more comprehensive measures of our prosperity and quality of life, going beyond GDP, particularly through a composite index on environmental pressures;

It will set out what still needs to be done by all different stakeholders, not only the Commission, but the Member States, regions, the private sector and financial bodies;

We must explain clearly why we need to work both on wider resource efficiency – getting more out of each tonne of materials, each hectare of land and each joule of energy - and on developing the circular economy – pumping back materials again and again into the productive economy.

Investing in eco-innovation and green products will be very important to ensure Europe's global leadership in creating a resource efficient society. The Eco-innovation action plan put forward in December 2011 is a building block in this direction. It addresses obstacles, lock-in behaviour, production systems, short term financing. It also offers models for policies to drive eco-innovation: public procurement of innovation, establishment of clusters and eco-parks, market replication or first application initiatives, and financing solutions tailored for innovative SMEs. The global market for green goods and services alone is estimated at €4.2 trillion. Our Communication "A Single Market for Green Products" and our work on eco-design are policy initiatives to support this.

But to move from words to deeds we need everybody's involvement, not only the Commission’s and national governments’, but also, regions, the private sector, financial organisations and each individual. And that is where our communication challenge lies. As I said, you and I know the story, but how do we get it through at all these levels. Well I have at least two suggestions where we can work together on this challenge.

Firstly, we need to use the governance system that we have in the Europe 2020 strategy – the European semester – to push the national capitals into action on the resource efficiency flagship of that Strategy. Country-specific recommendations in 2013 focussed on environmental taxation (in 11 Member States), environmental harmful subsidies (in 2 Member States), waste management (in 3 Member States) and water management (in 2 Member States). Just to mention one recent example: the revised Dutch draft budget of 11th of October includes 4 environmental taxes, on drinking water, landfilling, motor vehicle road tax and higher CO2 limits for car tax reductions that will generate over € 750 million/year. So, country specific recommendations do matter and do work.

The accompanying documents contained important messages on fiscal policy and taxation (reforming fossil-fuels and company car subsidies) as well as structural measures promoting growth and competitiveness, focussing on waste management, water pricing and infrastructure, eco-innovation, energy efficiency and air quality, on which (by the way) I intended to present a new package with policy proposals later this year. The direct impacts on the economy associated with air pollution are: 100 million lost workdays each year, with a direct cost estimated at around €15bn per year and additional direct health care cost at around €4bn. The air quality package will therefore also bring significant economic and social benefits.

I am working progressively to introduce more relevant parameters into the European Semester. We should use the European Semester to further push Member States to give the right price signals to the private sector, to move away from environmentally harmful subsidies and to invest more in waste and water management as drivers for job creation but also to secure scarce resources and materials, and save costs.

In short, I am pushing to make sure that we implement what we have set out in the Resource Efficiency Roadmap. For example, I have already mentioned many times that we would create around 400,000 jobs by 2020 by only properly implementing waste legislation – jobs that would certainly stay in European Union - and save to € 72 billion per year. The water industry generates value added for the European economy of 29 billion Euros and around 470.000 full time-equivalent jobs. Again, this messages need to be told over and over again.

Perhaps this is not traditional ground for environmental NGOs, who are more at home with Aarhus and Habitats Directives than the Annual Growth Strategy. But I believe that it would be highly worthwhile to try to explain the process to your member organisations at national level, and to encourage them to watch what their governments are doing to integrate our recommendations into their national budgets and national policies. Many of the real competencies that matter for the transition are firmly rooted in the national capitals, and will remain so.

My second suggestion is a way to create a big debate around these subjects. I have announced a challenge - “Let’s Clean up Europe” - on 10th May next year. The idea is to get people out – as they have already done in Estonia, Slovenia, and some other Member States – to clean up their neighbourhoods and beeches. But the direct impact on litter and illegal tips is not so important as the impact on peoples' consciences. I saw for myself in Slovenia the national debate it generated, in the media, around the dinner table and at the office water coolers. This will be a debate that we will then continue one month later in Brussels during our annual Green Week in June. I encourage you to mobilize and involve as many people as you can for “Let's Clean Up Europe”, and to join the debate and help raise awareness. This will happen just few days before European Parliament elections and I hope that candidates for the future Parliament will also find it useful, attractive and necessary to raise awareness and share the sustainability message.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

It will be businesses and people that will determine the speed of the transition to a greener Europe. I intend to make sure that, before the end of my mandate as EU Environment Commissioner, the framework conditions for change are in place. To make sure that change is possible. To make sure that the vision ‘of the future we want’ that we committed to in Rio, does not just remain a vision.

But - you – you will have to play an important role in helping me translate that vision. Many of you will stay in offices. Many of you have devoted entire productive part of your lives for noble environmental course. The biggest challenge we face is change in mentality: behaviour, choices, habits…the way we live. You, the ‘environmental voice of European citizens’, can help us make that change happen.

Thank you for your attention.


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