The Commission's Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, adopted on 20 September, suggests introducing resource efficiency indicators and targets across the 27-nation bloc.
Except for mandatory efficiency requirements on water-using devices, which are already set to be tabled in 2012, the paper does not talk about legally-binding targets for now.
In any case, before proposing any binding legislative measures, the EU executive is committed to conduct an impact assessment on each of them.
Presenting the initial policy paper on resource efficiency in January, EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik stressed that the last century had seen the world's population quadruple, with output growing 40 times, fish catches 35 times, water consumption 9 times, CO2 emissions 17 times and energy consumption 16 times.
"We can simply not continue like that," Potočnik said. "We can bail out banks and our economy but not our planet," he said, stressing that the initiative presents a framework for the "gradual transformation of our economy" and marks the start of "a systemic approach to resource efficiency" in all of the EU's policies.
Monitoring progress to start now
However, the Commission suggests measuring progress toward a resource efficient economy immediately, before "robust and easily understandable indicators" are defined by the end of 2013.
To do this, the EU executive suggests mapping progress via a provisional lead indicator – called "resource productivity" – that would measure GDP against material consumption expressed in euro/tonne. A higher ratio would indicate better performance, with growth consuming relatively fewer resources.
The lead indicator would be complemented by a series of other indicators on key natural resources such as water, land, materials and carbon that will take account of the EU's global consumption of these resources.
Phasing out harmful subsidies by 2012
A key and potentially most controversial plank of the Commission proposal is to shift taxation from labour to resource use.
The EU executive notes that "market prices are the primary guide for purchasing choices and investment decisions but they do not necessarily reflect the true costs of using resources and their environmental impacts."
It suggests that member states identify the most significant Environmentally Harmful Subsidies (EHS) by 2012 and prepare plans to phase them out completely by 2020. Harmful subsidies listed by the Commission include tax reductions or exemptions in the areas of fossil fuels, transport and water.
According to the Commission, EHS "can lock in inefficient practices and hinder businesses from investing in green technologies".
The phase out of EHS by 2020 would be accompanied with "green tax reforms", which consist of increasing the share of environmental taxes, and shifting taxation away from labour to boost employment and economic growth.
Turning waste into a resource
The roadmap also suggests turning waste into a key resource with the aim of decreasing the EU's dependency on imports of raw materials, lower impacts on the environment and open up new markets.
But in order to feed waste back into the economy as a raw material, "much higher priority needs to be given to re-use and recycling," the Commission notes. To create such a recycling economy, the EU executive proposes a combination of policies – product design integrating a life-cycle approach, better cooperation along all market actors along the value chain, better waste collection, incentives for waste prevention and recycling, as well as public investments in modern facilities for waste treatment and high quality recycling.
Myriad of initiatives for key sectors, resources
The roadmap sets a 2020 target for all key resources – ecosystem services, biodiversity, minerals and metals, water, air, land and soil and marine resources – and lists a series of actions and initiatives the EU and its member states should embark on.
They range form mapping the state of ecosystems and their services to a Communication on "Blue Growth" to increase sustainable use of marine resources.
According to the roadmap, nutrition, housing and mobility are typically responsible for 70-80% of all environmental impacts in industrialised countries. Therefore it identifies specific actions and 2020 milestones for these sectors.
Planned initiatives include a Communication on sustainable food, actions to ensure efficient mobility and a Communication on sustainable buildings.