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Changing mindsets

European Commission - SPEECH/14/434   05/06/2014

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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Changing mindsets

Green Week Closing Speech

Brussels, 5 June 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We come to the end of our three days together. It has been a real pleasure to see so many familiar faces here – I have got to know so many of you over the last 5 years, and do appreciate your enthusiasm and ideas. And I have also seen many new faces, and heard many new ideas. I am sure that you will all take home many ideas and impressions, and perhaps a few new contacts and friends.

First of all I would like to thank all of those who have worked so hard to make this event happen, and so smoothly. This was no accident. These three days have passed quickly, but they have taken months to prepare.

My thanks go to all involved, but particularly to the colleagues from DG Environment, Sabine, Pam, Janice and Astrid, who were the dream team. My thanks go also to the interpreters, for helping us to communicate and understand each other, and to all those who have chaired and animated our sessions.

I think they deserve your applause.

The real value of Green Week is dynamic dialogue. I have many meetings throughout the year, I read many papers and many briefings, but you really cannot beat the kind of ideas that come from putting together such a diverse set of experiences and perspectives into one room. Sometimes it takes an individual story, an individual problem or individual crazy idea to really understand where the innovation barriers are, what the policy challenges are, and where the opportunities are.

This year we brought together thousands of people: … NGOs, entrepreneurs, civic activists, CEOs, schoolchildren, officials, politicians, film directors, economists, researchers, lawyers,... a cuddly dustbin and a blue monkey. We had 40 sessions, an exhibition with 44 stands, and many many satellite events around Europe.

This just goes to show that when it comes to a complex issue like circular economy, the European Commission is just one small cog in a large machine. But of course we are a cog with an important role.

I want you all to know that we have listened and we have learned. There have been many messages that have come out of Green Week. I can assure you that what we have heard will have an impact. We have tried to capture the ideas before they flew away into the Brussels air.

As you know, I am coming towards the end of my term as European Commissioner for Environment, but I still have work to do. Not least I have a very important package to deliver on circular economy. The last 3 days has armed me with many practical ideas to bring to that package, but also a renewed motivation and enthusiasm, and a renewed conviction of the importance of what we are doing.

So what are the messages that we will take away from Green Week? What did we learn? What did I learn? I couldn’t attend all of the sessions, but I have my spies and they have been listening and reporting back.

First, there was a clear consensus that binding waste targets set at EU level are necessary to drive the change from a linear to a circular economy. They allow citizens, policy makers, and industry to understand the direction of travel, they create certainty for investments, they trigger innovation and they accelerate progress.

But targets on their own are not enough. We also need the political will, particularly at the municipal level, to translate this into effective implementation. We need application of economic instruments, development of markets for recycled materials, education and citizen involvement. We also heard that we need to accept more waste shipments within Europe on a temporary basis so as to use the existing capacities in the EU better instead of duplicating investments into poor waste management solutions.

And we learned that legal clarity and transparency and better statistics are essential; particularly, a precise definition of what counts as preparing for re-use, recycling, recovery.

In many sessions we learned about the fundamental importance of product design. Making products durable and recyclable is essential. This should happen in dialogue between the producers and the waste managers so that they can mutually understand their needs.

We learned that consumers want products that last longer, and can be repaired, and that there are great business and job opportunities from delivering spare parts. But legislation needs to support this, and transparency is needed on information to enable repairs. Ecodesign might be perceived as bureaucratic meddling, but the environmental impacts and public benefits are enormous.

We learned of the central importance of eco-design to ensuring that used electronic and electrical equipment is repaired, re-used, and eventually recycled. We learned of the need for effective incentives and creative ways to collect waste electronic and electrical equipment. We learned of the need for more information on the kinds of materials used to make products – a kind of “product passport”. And we heard strong views on whether producers should be obliged to adopt common standards: for example in the design of screws used to hold products together.

We learned about the power of relatively small changes in taxation to nudge behaviour of individuals, households and companies in the circular direction, and the need for Member States to share experience on this.

We learned of the enormous potential for entrepreneurs and SMEs in the circular economy, but also the importance of targeted information for SMEs, environmental legislation that takes into account the limitations of SMEs, and for tailored financial and technical assistance for SMEs.

We learned about the new business models, indeed we saw examples of new business models such as leasing, sharing, and social enterprises, which will shape our transition to the circular economy. We learned about the phenomenal employment possibilities linked to them.

We learned about the crucial role cities and regions will play in making the circular economy as success: they use a lot of resources, yet have a high innovation potential, and can take integrated, multi-actor approaches towards smart urbanisation. Green public procurement should be a powerful tool at the urban and regional levels to drive circular economy innovation. We need to reinvent cities and to exchange our experience with the rapidly urbanizing emerging economies.

We learned that investors face important barriers, including financial regulation, risks, lack of information. We learned about difficulties for large investors to finance small projects; and we learned of the potential of “impact investing”, “crowd funding”, and the green bond market. We learned of the importance of transparency for companies and investors on environmental impacts, and of the potential of support from the European Investment Bank

We learned that we need to measure our development differently. And we need to quantify and understand how investing in nature offers multiple economic, social and environmental benefits;

We learned that we need to drive the demand for sustainable buildings through better public information on environmental performance. When we buy a property we should have specifications of what materials went into building it. And at the end of their life we should not demolish buildings, we should rather dismantle them, using them as urban mines for materials.

We all knew and all agreed that food waste is indefensible. But we learned that although consumers increasingly want natural food, some innovative technologies could also help us to achieve higher levels of sustainability and reduce food waste, for example by making it last longer. So sustainability in food means different things to different people. We learned that efficiency in the agricultural use of phosphorous is critical.

We learned new ways to engage citizens, not just through passive information, but through action. We have seen examples such as the 600 repair cafés around Europe, or the 4000 actions of Let’s Clean Up Europe, that demonstrate how grass roots civic actions can generate debate about how we produce and consume.

And we have seen how we can always learn from our children. They often give us a reality check and challenge the habits and assumptions that we have developed, and that we sometimes mistake for experience and wisdom.

We have learned that we should not demonise those established companies that are operating in resource intensive ways, as they have been conditioned to do so by existing systems, markets and incentives. Rather we should help them, engage with them and encourage them to find solutions.

Oh yes, and we also learned that you can make a dress out of milk!

Some of these ideas have reinforced our ideas and approaches in the Waste Review and Circular Economy Package that we are now developing. Others will add to them or change them.

But all of this sounds like a long list of problems or challenges; I do not want you to leave here without hope. I have gained optimism from what we have heard.

One of the things that has struck me this week is the extent to which the unthinkable can suddenly become not only possible, but actually real. A couple of decades ago the idea of walking around with a hand-held device that allowed you to communicate with the other side of the world was quite simply science fiction. But we heard this week that there are now more mobile phones in the world than people.

We have learned that many solutions are incredible simple and incredibly cheap, but can have far reaching effects. We have learned that the extent of our inefficiencies gives enormous scope for moving towards a world where we decouple future growth from resource use and its impacts.

A few weeks ago few people would have predicted the changes we are seeing in the international climate negotiations, which could have enormously beneficial consequences for the planet.

That’s how I feel about the circular economy. I know it can happen, I know it will happen, I know it is inevitable – and after seeing so many bright ideas, and so much willingness to confront change, I am starting to sense some reassurance that we can do it before we are forced to do it.

In my opening speech I quoted Macchiavelli on the obstacles that the existing system poses to change, but Macchiavelli also said that “The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.” And in the last three days I have seen that we have many wise men, and many wise women. I start to be more confident that, as your ideas gain wider acceptance we can envisage gifting to our children high levels of sustainable wellbeing, rather than just leaving them the bill.

But we have a major task ahead and I want to ask for your help.

We all have a major task in explaining why resource efficiency and circular economy are important. I would like to identify three important communication challenges:

  1. first is combatting misinformation and fear

  2. second is communicating a clear target and direction, and

  3. third is changing mindsets through citizens’ action

Taking these in turn:

Firstly, we saw again in the European election campaigning the power of misinformation and the convenience of blaming Brussels. In the last three days we have heard from all quarters the fundamental importance of eco-design as a central pillar of delivering the circular economy. Yet in the last few weeks we have seen ill-informed and opportunistic attacks on eco-design by politicians of all colours. Let us be clear:

  1. Eco-design products already save households hundreds of euros, and have the potential to save many more hundreds;

  2. Ecodesign criteria will enable European companies to take a competitive lead worldwide;

  3. and, yes, Ecodesign might address small technical issues, but the environmental impacts are enormous and are in the public and the environmental interest.

We have to fight lazy populism with hard-working facts. And I know we will face more attacks in the coming months.

On to my second point.

One important message from the sessions has been the moving towards a circular economy is highly complex and involves many actors. How do we move in the right direction in a coordinated and coherent way? How do we move from nice words to actions? Particularly when we have heard so much about the lock-ins and obstacles to systemic change.

Without a clear target I believe that we will remain for a long time in the zone of nice words whilst we continue to drive in the wrong direction and towards a big wall. The very complexity of our task means that we need a target that we can communicate. Not one that we can impose, not one that is perfect,… one that we can all understand.

But of course a headline target will not reach the broader public. And that brings me to my third point.

To change behaviour you need to changing mindsets, and we cannot simply do this by telling people to change. We can try to do it through incentives and regulation. But the best way to do it is through awareness and understanding.

Printing brochures does not change peoples’ ways of thinking. We have seen examples here of mobilizing people in their own interests – to repair their broken products, or to clean up their neighbourhoods. But these actions also enlighten, and they can be fun.

Last month I was wearing gloves and boots with a binbag in my hand cleaning up the area near the Environment DG in Brussels. This was one of 4000 such actions taking part in Let’s Clean Europe on 10th May. Today we announced that Let’s Clean Up Europe 2015 will take place on 8th to 10th May 2015. Please join me.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As humans we like to think that we are pretty smart. We think that we can make nature better, use it, manage it. But we should rather show some humility. As one participant stated, we should “learn from nature and make use of 3.8 billion years of successful natural design to turn our linear economy into a circular one”. Nature, as a perfect circular system is an important inspiration for the circular economy.

We really show our arrogance when we talk about saving the planet, the planet doesn’t need us to do that. Life will go on here on earth after we humans are gone. What we are doing by trying to live within the boundaries of this planet we do for humanity. I hope that we can not only live, but live well within those boundaries.

Thank you for sharing the last few days with us. Thank you for being a devoted and inspiring audience. I hope you have enjoyed the week as I did. Since I cannot finish by saying “see you next year”, I just wish you a safe trip back home and I hope you will attend the next edition of Green Week.


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