The European Commission's resource efficiency roadmap, unveiled in September, suggested decoupling economic growth from natural resource use.
Europe's economy is threatened by growing competition for natural resources – including energy, water or minerals – it warned, suggesting a complete transformation of the way our society produces and consumes manufactured goods.
A leaner, more efficient industry would be better insulated from external shocks like sudden rises in commodity or energy prices, the Commission argued, and would therefore also reduce costs for businesses.
Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik refuted claims that the Commission had shied away from proposing binding objectives, saying the roadmap did not contain targets because there had not been enough time to carry out impact assessments.
Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch liberal MEP who is drafting the European Parliament's position on the roadmap, agreed: "I am in favour of targets but smart ones, and I don't think we have them yet," he said.
Under the roadmap, targets should be agreed by the end of 2013 with the aim of steering company's investments towards eco-innovation.
Choosing the right indicators
Potočnik also underlined that in order to propose targets, a consensus needs to be reached first among experts on which indicators are the most suitable for monitoring progress.
Work has already started, with examples including consumption based indicators on land, materials, water, carbon or energy. Life cycle-based indicators are also being developed by the Commission's Joint Research Centre with first results expected by the end of 2011. An assessment of existing resource use indicators should be ready by early 2012.
But before agreement is reached on the best indicators, the EU executive suggested measuring progress immediately by introducing a "resource productivity" indicator that would measure GDP against material consumption expressed in euros per tonne.
Environmentalists have criticised the indicator, saying it ignores land, water and carbon footprints. Businesses have also complained, claiming that the indicator should also take into account the environmental benefits of raw materials use, not just the damage.
The roadmap also seeks to address the environmental footprint of products, building on an ongoing assessment due in 2012. This could be done for example by expanding the scope of the EU's Ecodesign directive to non-energy related products.
While business stakeholders generally welcome the idea, some stress that the EU executive should be careful when assessing the environmental performance of products, such as their ability to be recycled or reused.
The European Aluminium Association (EEA) for example notes that "recycled content cannot today be considered as a relevant indicator to predict which product will be most recyclable in the future".
Indeed, although metals are infinitely recyclable, they may sometimes not be recovered after decades. According to the European Environment Agency, aluminium has a life-cycle of up to 80 years in buildings for example.
For this reason, the metals industry is insisting on considering the whole life cycle approach when it comes to assessing the environmental footprint of a product.
In one of its potentially most controversial aspects, the Commission roadmap also suggests shifting taxation away from labour to resource use. Green taxes, it argues, are ultimately the only way to bolster a shift to a resource efficient economy.
The Greens in the European Parliament are calling for the Commission to come forward with a "Resource Taxation Directive" to "send a clear signal for investors". This could be done for example by broadening the scope of the existing Energy Taxation Directive.
However, taxation is always going to be controversial as EU action on the matter needs unanimity among member states, which keep the last word on taxation matters.
Business groups too tend to look with scepticism at any taxation initiative. The European Steel Association (Eurofer) prefers to place the emphasis on "technology-related measures", such as improving the recyclability of products at the design stage. Life cycle-based decision-making are "more applicable to manufacturing industries than price signals introduced by caps or taxes," it said.
On the consumer side, the European organisation BEUC says the Commission should coordinate ecological tax policies at national level and suggests introducing reduced VAT rates for green products and services.
A joint proposal to reduce VAT rates for green products was put forward by France and the UK in 2007 but it did not win enough bakcing from other EU countries to move forward. BEUC does not give up on the idea and hopes the Commission will revive it when it reviews its sustainable consumption and production action plan in 2012.
Waste as a resource
One thing that everybody seems to agree on is to promote waste as a key resource in the EU's future economy.
But in order to feed waste back into the economy as a raw material, better functioning waste sorting and collection is a must while landfilling must be curbed.
Furthermore, products need to be designed for recycling in the first place, so that different resources can be more easily extracted when dismantled. Investments in modern facilities for waste treatment and high quality recycling are needed as well, stakeholders said.