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Resource Efficiency: The Keystone to Rebuilding Europe’s Economy

Submitted by on 09 Mar 2012 – 11:37

Resource Efficiency: The Keystone to Rebuilding Europe’s Economy


Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment



In the past century our world has made enormous strides in terms of economic growth and technological development. However, in the next century just keeping things as they are will present an enormous challenge.  We will need to greatly increase the efficiency with which we use resources, restructure our economies and make huge technological advances.


Resource efficiency is a broad theme that encompasses all material and natural resources, from food, timber and biodiversity in the widest sense, to energy, metals, soil, water, minerals, our atmosphere and land. All of these are being used up at an unsustainable rate. There is now a clear need to move to a green economy, decouple economic growth from the use of natural resources and stimulate markets through both regulatory and market-based instruments. The private sector will have a key role to play, delivering green growth through trade, investment, research and development, innovation and resource efficiency.


The plain fact is that our development has been based on an unsustainable use of the planet’s natural resources. The ‘great acceleration’ of the 20th century saw our economic output grow 23 times, while our resource use increased 8 fold at the expense of our natural capital. With the world population growing rapidly and consumption and expectations in developing nations rising, we will need three times more resources by 2050. And we live on a planet with finite resources. There is therefore no prospect of sustainable growth unless we become more resource-efficient.


Environmental concerns must be integrated into other policy areas like industry, energy, agriculture, fisheries and transport. The European Commission’s recent Roadmap to a Resource-efficient Europe spells out a vision of how to do this, with the aim of transforming the EU economy to make it more competitive and inclusive by 2050. The Roadmap proposes a growth path that respects the planet’s natural limits. It contributes to a global economic transformation and enables high standards of living, with environmental impacts that our planet can bear. We must not underestimate the natural value of our environment: pollinators alone are worth £430 billion per year to UK agriculture. Poor accounting of the value of our environmental assets leads them to be undervalued in policy and decision making. The transition to a Green Economy means ensuring growth is sustainable in the long term and policies facilitate green growth; natural resources are used efficiently, with minimal waste going to landfill; and the economy is increasingly resilient, less reliant on fossil fuels and more prepared for environmental risks, such as flooding.


Worldwide demand for environmental technologies, products and services is growing rapidly even in these difficult times, and it’s an area where Europe has much to offer. Recently, the European Commission launched the Eco-Innovation Action Plan, which will accelerate eco-innovation across all sectors of the economy with well targeted actions. To help create stronger and more stable market demand for eco-innovation, it will take measures in the areas of regulatory incentives, private and public procurement and standards and it will mobilise support for SMEs to improve investment readiness and networking opportunities.


As the first practical fruit of the Eco-Innovation Action Plan, the European Commission also launched a new instrument to help companies that are developing innovative environmental technologies. The Environmental Technology Verification (ETV) pilot programme will provide independent verification of the performance of new environmental technologies. ETV services are intended in particular for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, which may find it more difficult to prove the performance of new technologies than larger manufacturers. ETV should reduce the need to multiply demonstration sites or to repeat test campaigns for different markets. It could also facilitate exports to non-EU markets such as North America and Asia, where the ETV approach is progressively recognised.


We are all aware of claims in some quarters that now is not the time to invest in environmental protection and that our focus should be on jobs and growth. This is a much too short term view of the world. After decades of carefree – and careless – growth, we need to pay more attention to the limits imposed by the Earth’s natural resources and to the needs of future generations. We need sustainable jobs and sustainable growth and if we fail to transform our economies, fail to deal with the loss of biodiversity and the loss of natural resources then we will find ourselves in a much greater crisis further down the road. It is clear that we need to apply the same ingenuity and innovation to improving our resource productivity now, as we did to improving our labour productivity in the past. We need to understand the value of our natural capital and consume sustainably. After all, in the words of Mark Twain, ‘the world doesn’t owe you anything. It was here first.’