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Speech - Are we moving to a resource efficient future

European Commission - SPEECH/13/881   05/11/2013

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European Commission

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Are we moving to a resource efficient future

Friends of the Earth (FoE) Europe Conference /Brussels

5 November 2013

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am glad to open this conference on targeting a more resource efficient Europe. I would like to thank Friends of the Earth for organising such an event which is well timed to support the reflexions and recommendations of the European Resource Efficiency Platform.

The question you have asked me to address is "Are we moving to a resource efficient future?" Well if you have heard me speak before on the subject you will know that I usually say that we actually have no choice. We will have to be resource efficient in the future. The choice that we have is to try to manage a smoother transition by channelling investment and adapting systems so that we start driving in the right direction, or to keep driving straight ahead until we hit a wall.

For the moment I would say that we are certainly not heading to a future we can afford.

We all know that. If we stick to current trends we will need three times more material resources by 2050. We will need more water than we can access globally. While we are losing land in the EU to urban sprawl, we are using an ever bigger area of land globally through our imports. This has consequences on our environment and security of supply in the EU. The impacts, including food scarcity, are dramatic for the population in the developing world.

But on the positive side, I would say that we have a clear roadmap, and we are undertaking the right manoeuvres to change course. We need however to change gear and move faster.

The EU has been at the forefront of policy development aiming to reduce our impact on the environment.

We have been leading the efforts to reduce the emission of Green House Gases. The EEA has produced last month its assessment of climate and energy targets. The EU, collectively, is on the right track to reduce its emissions and increase the share of renewables in our energy mix. Our industries are now among the most energy efficient in the world.

At a more detailed level, a wide range of specific targets have been set with the objectives of making better use of our natural resources. We have still a long way to go, though.

High level indicators and targets are necessary to focus energies, to give a clear direction and measure progress towards a circular economy. Looking at the data since the 1990s, the EU has been able to stabilise its direct material consumption even when it has undergone a period of economic growth.

However, if this trend is mainly due to more goods being imported from outside the EU, it does not indicate a real move towards a resource‑efficient economy. In fact, our material footprint, which includes the embedded component of imported products, has been increasing. We are more and more dependent on imported resources.

Besides materials, our policy compass needs to take into account other key resources, in particular water and land. In spite of improvements in recent years, assessments conducted by the Commission indicate that only a little more than half of the EU's surface waters will reach good ecological status by 2015 as required by EU legislation.

If we keep on the same track, an area twice the size of my country, Slovenia, will have been covered by buildings, roads and other constructions by 2050.

There has been a realisation that a more global approach to how we use our resources is needed. By "We" I mean everybody: citizens, businesses, policy makers, in the EU, but also world-wide.

The message coming from the European Resource Efficiency Platform is that the EU should set ambitious and visible targets to improve the overall decoupling of resource use from economic growth. We have already indicators and targets for carbon. The Platform agreed that progress should also be measured against our use of materials, land and water.

These indicators should be fit for use in the EU 2020 strategy and in the European Semester. If this is a powerful tool to foster the development of resource efficiency, it also brings constraints. The indicators used to guide the process must be indisputable. They should be accepted by all Member States.

Our initial proposal was that we use as the lead indicator resource productivity. Resource productivity is defined as being the unit of GDP produced divided by the weight of material used. This is indeed a synthetic indicator covering all facets of EU activities. In addition it is based on official environmental accounts maintained by EU statistical offices and is therefore recognised by all Member States.

This is not sufficient, however. We also need to better assess the resources mobilised in countries outside the EU, and this for two reasons:

First, not taking into account the resources embedded in our imports could lead to the conclusion that we are becoming more resource efficient, while in fact our manufacturing industry shrinks.

Second, Resource efficiency is not only applicable to the EU. If it has to have an impact at the global level, it should also be taken up by third countries.

This is why I propose a material target based on raw material consumption which takes into account the resources used to produce Europe's imports. Current methodologies allow for this calculation. They now need to be applied by national statistical offices. My services are working with Eurostat for this purpose.

On land, the Seventh Environment Action Programme calls on the EU to adopt 'targets on soil and on land as a resource, and land planning objectives'. While the decisions will be up to the next College of Commissioners, it is clear already that the 7th EAP and the Rio+20 goal of a 'land-degradation neutral world' will set the context in which the Commission work will have to be carried out.

As concerns water, our Water blueprint has set up the framework. The process for setting targets will take place in 2014 when better indicators are available. In the meantime, the Water Exploitation Index as proposed in the consultation document, provides guidance on the pressures on this resource.

All simulations show a considerable impact of European consumption on the rest of the world. We are all aware, however, that concerning land and water footprints there are no generally accepted methodologies. Several projects are now looking into identifying and harmonising the various methodologies. The Commission has supported such projects and is willing to support future efforts. Of course, when progress is made we will look at how to make the best use of footprint indicators.

I am frequently told that there is still a lot of work in front of us before we have good targets and indicators. But perfection is the enemy of the possible, and the search for the "ideal" indicator should not prevent us from mobilizing already around a clear target, and moving full steam ahead with the other elements of our resource efficiency agenda.

Next spring, I will propose to my colleagues a resource efficiency and waste initiative. 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.

As you may know, I was Commissioner for Science and Research in a previous life. If I had been paid a bonus based on how much closer we came to reaching our "headline" research target of 3% of GDP going to research spending I would not have become very rich. But that target still played an important role as an aspirational goal, which showed what was, and still is, the right direction.

It was Confucius who said "when it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don't adjust the goals, adjust the action steps".

Yes, we need a target that reflects the scale and importance of the societal challenge of resource efficiency. And yes, we need to adjust our actions!


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