Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker est le co-directeur de l'International Resource Panel du PNUE. C'est un scientifique et homme politique allemand qui a fondé et présidé l'Institut de Wuppertal pour le climat, l'environnement et l'énergie. Il est également membre du Club de Rome.
Il s'est confié à Outi Alapekkala pour EurActiv.
What kind of work does the UNEP Resource Panel do on resource efficiency? Your report on 'Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth' last spring said that 'humanity can and must do more with less'. Where should we start from?
Half a dozen of our reports, including the one you mention, are essentially fact collecting. They show the methodology of looking at resource intensity or resource productivity. They then show that so far decoupling is not happening – except for so-called relative decoupling, meaning that GDP grows faster than resource consumption.
That, however, can however be explained by overcoming the initial clumsiness and by saturation. So this [relative decoupling] is not automatically the result of policies to reduce resource consumption or resource intensity.
Nevertheless, this report also contains case studies of four countries – China, South Africa, Japan and Germany – which in different fields have been implementing policies of reducing resource consumption.
But those were originally meant as case studies for what is now meant to be the second decoupling report on policies and technologies, currently in the pipeline. Similarly we have a report on metals, which is one particular class of resources also of particular importance for the roadmap.
So the first two reports were essentially fact-finding and the third and the fourth ones are on technologies and policies, which is the typical scientific approach: first you have a look at what is there before you can seriously enter the policy field.
The report on technologies and policies is in the pipeline. It is well advanced and entering peer review soon. We hope to have it ready in time for the Rio+20 summit. This would mean we have to publish it in January or so.
So you will be giving policy recommendations in this upcoming report?
We are not meant, as panellists, to give policy recommendations. What we do is supposed to be policy relevant, but not policy prescriptive, so that the member countries of the UN can look at the report and say 'so it is'.
And perhaps in this case the policy analysis will lead some countries to follow some recommendations. But this is something that the states don't want to be told by a panel like ours.
However, this is what the European Commission is trying to do with its resource efficiency roadmap, to give policy recommendations and then finally propose legislative initiatives.
Yes, and that is very good. Actually the European Commission has a much stronger mandate to do such things. After all, it is the EU Commission that is the typical initiator, if not the only one, for new legislative instruments. Therefore, I think that people would be disappointed if the roadmap would not come up with legislative proposals.
Is there something particular you would like to see tabled as a legislative proposal by the Commission?
One – that is very unlikely to happen because the British are going to block it – is a proposal for fiscal instruments that encourage resource productivity, meaning a tax shift from labour to resources.
It would make sense in terms of employment policy and environmental policy. But the British say 'this is none of your business – this is national business'. But nevertheless – the roadmap can do that in the appropriate language.
So you support the EU call for shifting taxation from labour to resource?
That would be very clever, because it would make the EU more competitive in fields that really count on world markets.
Energy efficiency and saving metals that are otherwise wasted. All this kind of thing would greatly benefit from higher prices on natural resource, including energy, and lower prices on wages, indirect wages. So, this tax shift from labour to resources would make this 'scarcity factor' a little dearer.
As there is this factor of scarcity of metals, energy, biomass, etc, it is absolutely reasonable to have price signals making the scarcity factor dearer and the abundance factor less dear. Labour is an abundant supply – otherwise you would not have unemployment.
The EU roadmap on resource efficiency identifies food, housing and mobility as the main consumer sectors to be addressed, as they consume the most resources. If we start taxing these sectors' resource use more, what kind of social consequences would this shift have on the poorest and the emerging middle class, as a lot of people already cannot afford to buy food?
This is exactly the same question I raised with the EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik at the global resource forum in Davos. And I offered him a policy instrument – that I have not invented – that simply looks at the so-called lifeline philosophy that is in place in South Africa.
What is the lifeline philosophy?
Essentially it says that what you really need for living in terms of energy and water is cheapness and the cost – price signal – begins only above that lifeline amount. And that would mean that the poor are almost entirely exempted from the price rise.
You say the poor would be exempt from the price rise because they anyway already are consuming only what they need, basically, for example regarding food?
I don't know if the roadmap specifically says that the food should become expensive. I think that in terms of a resource efficient economy you would fiscally target the primary resources. Those would be water and minerals, including those that you need for fertilisers. Fiscally-targeted resources could also be energy - and even space, but you probably wouldn't do that.
It is correct that those three sectors – food, housing and mobility – should be the main targets but you would not actively make mobility or food more expensive, you would make energy use for mobility or energy use for food more expensive and then that leaves the option of consuming less energy for your transport. This would mean that a technological answer is needed – not an austerity answer.
Well it could be an austerity answer if fossil fuels are taxed even more and private car use becomes tremendously expensive eventually leaving people with no other option than abandoning their cars, no?
As a matter of fact in Vienna, Austria, every third family has a car because public transport is so excellent. While in a city in Kansas or Missouri or anywhere in America trying to get by without a car would just be unacceptable because everybody needs a car because there is no public transport.
It is very difficult if you have a commuting distance of 30 miles each way and there is no reasonable public transport available - so you just need to use your car. And this I of course a sick symbol, a sick feature of the American society and they will find it a lot more difficult to combat global warming and other things.
What will then happen to, let's say, car manufacturers if private car use becomes too expensive for the most of us? The incentive here is for them to innovate to be less polluting and use less fossil fuels?
During your presentation at the global resource forum in Davos, did you already give a little insight on the UNEP's next report on technologies and policies?
Yes. Many of the thoughts I have already actually published in the book Factor Five - Transforming the Global Economy through 80% Improvements in Resource Productivity.
The book simply shows that you can manufacture cars which only consume about a litre and a half for a hundred kilometres and you can have food with a lot less energy and water. You can have houses that are essentially energy neutral – I'm living in a passive house in Germany where you hardly need to use any external energy.
And this is all part of my story saying 'we can do five times better'.
It may take a generation or two but if we now begin to give a signal that energy efficiency and resource efficiency become ever more economically reasonable, we will see after 30, 40 or 50 years a five-fold increase in resource efficiency.
And the EU would be very, very wise to follow that trajectory: it would end up with hardly any dependence on oil or gas imports. Even in metals, in which Europe is not particularly rich, we could do a lot with recycling.
There are businesses that want to recycle and use recycled materials, but they can't because no recycling market really exists and they cannot get their hands on enough materials.
The trouble is that the recycling rate of all the high tech metals that are so much in demand today is less than 1%. This is shown by the second metal report, coordinated by professor Thomas Graedel from the Yale university, that we published recently.
And this recycling rate applies to rare earths, but also for lithium that you need for car batteries, gallium you need for computers and digital cameras and indium that you need for computer screens - and many other such high tech metals that are very, very valuable.
The rare earths are not actually that rare - most of them are less rare than, for instance, indium is. But they also have recycling rates below 1%. And that means that this is a fabulous challenge for metallurgical science and technology inside Europe. Actually, we need a so-called Fraunhofer Institute (German applied science association) for metals recycling.
And then this would also create markets because their output would have to be marketed.
How then can we have food with much less water and energy?
My book Factor Five has a full chapter on agriculture looking, for example, at stables of cows and sheep that are mostly overheated. Then the food processing is losing a lot of energy.
Also, artificial fertilisers are typically mined phosphates processed with high input of energy – whereas this is not necessary, if you have a more cyclical kind of nutrition flow inside agriculture. Then, of course, the chain from farm to the consumer, the distances, can be far shorter.
A friend of mind did years ago a study at the Wuppertal Institute on strawberry yogurt. The study - that became quite famous – shows that for the manufacture of strawberry yogurt lorries typically crisscross Europe making some 8,000 km until this yogurt is on your breakfast table. This is simply crazy and has to be improved. And it can be by the factor of four or five or so.
What is your assessment o f the current raw materials hype, Chinese export restrictions on rare earths and the WTO challenge from the resource efficiency and recycling perspective, as you say that Europe already has a big recycling potential?
That means that as long as we, Europeans, are wasting 99% of the rare earths that we are using we have no moral justification to blame the Chinese for being a bit restrictive on exports.
So we should first make a bit of moral critique ourselves for showing such a wasteful behaviour and then perhaps, in the end, negotiate with the Chinese if perhaps in exchange for recycling technology we can have a little more of their stuff.
That would make sense. The WTO issue is much more difficult for the Chinese to handle because the WTO is against any export restrictions by their very legal setup. So if the Chinese declare 'we are producing less and exporting less' they are in trouble with the WTO.
Any final comment on the EU resource efficiency roadmap?
The roadmap is a good, great step forward - but it needs, of course, a number of concrete binding commitments. But this is not for the Commission to decide but for the Council.