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Resource-efficiency: Europe can set a global example

The European Commission’s roadmap for a resource-efficient Europe proposes a decent way forward to transform the Union into a sustainable economy, writes Bas de Leeuw from the World Resources Forum.

Bas de Leeuw is Managing Director of the World Resources Forum, a science-based platform to exchange knowledge about the economic, political and environmental implications of global resource use. He sent this commentary in exclusivity for EurActiv.

“Dr. Janez Potoĉnik’s key note speech at the World Resources Forum 2011 in Davos, Switzerland a day ahead of the publication of the European Commission’s Roadmap to a Resource-Efficient Europe made me feel hopeful about Europe’s transformation into a sustainable economy. In fact, the Roadmap proposes a decent way forward including attempts to set robust and convincing targets, mechanisms and progress reviews.

The Roadmap offers a set of guidelines to transform the European economy by as early as 2050. As visionary as it is, I could not help thinking back to Europe’s original goal in the preparatory phase of the Rio +10 Summit in 2002 in Johannesburg: to come up with a concrete action plan for a similar concept; sustainable consumption and production. This plan failed. As we are moving towards the preparatory phase of Rio +20, the question arises: will this plan fail as well? Did we make any progress in the time since the last Summit, aside from moving the date a few decades into the future?

The answer is yes. Despite the lack of real global aspiration, many countries have made progress and are on their way to integrating resource efficiency into their mainstream economic policy making. What’s more, the Roadmap shows that European member states still want to be – and in my opinion are – leading the way.

Europe should indeed be able to lead by example. The Roadmap has – apart from its semi-quantitative vision and milestones – some very meaningful proposals to offer.  Regardless of the chances of being implemented in a timely fashion, the Roadmap is clear and well-written. It identifies the actors, sets the targets and describes a process that has the potential to make a difference. To me, the most interesting element of the document is the chosen point of policy intervention in the complex consumption and production system, which is: getting the data right.

The importance of measuring

“One cannot manage what one cannot measure”, is the quote (of Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency) I remember most vividly from this year’s World Resources Forum. This seems to embody the spirit of the Roadmap, and more specifically, its focus on measurement, with resource productivity at its core. I myself would have chosen for resource use per capita, which in my opinion is the best way to combine development goals and environmental protection. However, I also understand that this may be controversial in an international context and may hinder any real chances of reaching a consensus. Despite believing that resource productivity alone will not do it, I consider this a good step in the right direction, which will hopefully be followed by the shifting of political attention towards taxing resources instead of taxing labour in order to get the prices right. Indeed, high resource prices made Japan one of the most resource-efficient economies in the world in little more than a decade, as highlighted by Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, co-chair of the UNEP International Resource Panel in Davos.

The Roadmap’s global impact

At the global level, many countries face equally alarming trends in population growth and resource use, and therefore increasing pollution levels that have life-threatening impacts, particularly on the poor who are already disproportionately suffering from financial, food and climate change crises.

It is in fact the international paragraph in the Roadmap that I find disappointing. In comparison to the policies put forward related to key European sectors, the international section is short, lacking concrete actions and quantitative targets. Furthermore, it gives the impression of a lack of sense of urgency to engage with other key players such as China, the USA and the new industrialising countries Brazil and India. Let us look at China for a moment: projections indicate that a business as usual approach will lead to a 25 fold increase of environmental impact by 2050, as was laid out by the Chinese scientist Dajian Zhu at the World Resources Forum.

Chinais an emerging economy with high resource intensity and recognises that the depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening ecological environment have far-reaching consequences for the nation’s economic and social development. Perhaps the European Commission implicitly shows its low level of ambition with regard to the international context, since it likely anticipates the lack of cooperation with highly complicated global dossiers, notably that on Climate Change, and is preparing to move forward even when others fail.

Moving forward

As Rio+20 is approaching, we need to get the data right – and that starts here. Rather than luring top politicians into signing big and bold policy plans with uncertain impacts, let us not be afraid to be realistic and aim at simple but more feasible aspirations. We need to agree on the state of the environment and the state of our resource base at a global level, and then use these data to manage our resources well by designing and implementing proper policies whilst agreeing on how to best measure progress. The European Commission’s Roadmap can certainly lead the way on how to become the most resource-productive economy in the world, so let’s just do it.”

Read full article here.

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Discovering the world behind the product

“It is becoming more and more evident that consumers are increasingly interested in the world that lies  behind the product they buy. Apart from price and quality, they want to know how and where and by whom the product has been produced. This increasing awareness about environmental and social issues is a sign of hope. Governments and industry must build on that.”

My most widely quoted statement, first written for Klaus Toepfer in a press release about the Life Cycle Initiative (23 August 1999), then included in the chapter I wrote in Sustainable Solutions, with Nick Robins, published by Greenleafs in 2001, and later referred to in my Journal of Industrial Ecology column in 2005.

And put on a slide, in various formats and colours (talking about recycling!) the underlying message was used at numerous occasions in speeches and workshops throughout the years. It has proved to be a powerful quote which brings the message across that sustainable consumption has to be a common goal, to be brought about by not only consumers, but also and maybe foremost by business and governments.

Therewith the quote was used for both the development and promotion of the Sustainable Consumption Programme, including the Advertising Initiative, as the Life Cycle Initiative.

Read the UNEP press release (August 1999)

Order Sustainable Solutions article or read here (Robins and de Leeuw 2001, p. 52)

Download abstract of the Journal of Industrial Ecology column (2005)

Download full article (PDF) of the Journal of Industrial Ecology column (2005)

Calling for systems approach to scarcity in India

New Delhi, March 25, 2010. As part of the Foresight India symposium taking place March 25-26 in New Delhi, Sustainability Institute’s Executive Director Bas de Leeuw will be presenting his text on applying a systems approach to resource scarcity.

In this text, De Leeuw begins by pointing out that through the years an increasing amount of credibility has been given to the issue of resource scarcity. Such scarcity is not only due to quantitative limitations, but also to the constraint location may put on their availability, due to conflicts and security concerns. Though society is far along this growth path, de Leeuw assures us there is still hope. If we put effort into looking at the whole picture, gathering more specific data on the global situation, and demonstrating the consequences of inaction, we can better understand the change we need. This change must be reflected on a global, national, and individual level in order to produce effective, innovative solutions and the legislation to support.

Read the article here.   Reader available here (PDF). Sustainability Institute web coverage here