Driving EU industry: Standing up to societal challenges


This article is part of our special report A renewed Europe: Innovation in technology industries.

In late January, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action Miguel Arias Cañete delivered a speech as part of a Post-COP24 High Level Debate, in which he drew attention to the bloc’s 2030 climate and energy goals, and the EU’s role in the global fight against climate change.

“Cementing the EU’s global climate leadership,” Cañete said, would be dependent on the Council and Parliament playing their role in ensuring that the EU’s 2030 green objectives are met.

Such long-term targets include making at least 40% cuts in greenhouse gas emission, establishing at least a 27% share for renewable energy, and making a 27% improvement in energy efficiency.

These 2030 objectives are complemented by a more recent pledge, the 2050 long-term strategy, in which the EU presented its vision for a “competitive and climate-neutral economy my 2050,” and one that is in line with Paris Agreement targets to keep the global temperature increase to below 2 degrees.

“With this level of ambition, we can help drive innovation, and the EU can continue to show leadership to the rest of the world in the fight against global warming,” Cañete said.

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Finding innovative solutions to the challenges brought up in the fight against climate change can vitalise EU industry and offer the bloc a competitive advantage in the fight against global issues.

A recent initiative in Lithuania is an example of this in practice, after the Commission approved state aid provisions to support the production of electricity from renewable energy sources in line with EU environmental objectives, ensuring the competitiveness of energy-intensive users and industries.

Developing innovative solutions to societal issues is a perspective recently rallied for by the EU tech industry trade association, Orgalim, who represent 44 associations across 23 different countries across the bloc.

In their recently published strategy paper, Vision 2030, they call for EU technology companies to remain “at the forefront of the development and delivery of clean technologies and systems,” as a means to meet wider environmental goals.

Commission President Juncker is on the same level. During his keynote speech as part of the Industry Days conference on Tuesday (5 February), he highlighted the importance of industry innovation pursuing climate goals.

“The future of Europe’s industry will depend on its ability to adapt by investing in new technologies and embracing the digital and ecological transitions. This is why when it comes to industry we have put our money where our mouth is,” he said.

“A quarter of our budget will support our clean energy, climate and sustainable development targets.”

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Circular Economy

Standards in sustainability will also come by way of the change in the culture of the EU’s methods of production.

The Commission’s bid to transform the EU’s productive landscape into more of a circular economy model is a clear example of the ways in which the bloc’s industries will have to conceive of creative ways in which to meet new challenges.

The notion of a Circular Economy is that materials in a product’s life cycle are maintained for a long as possible, reducing waste. When an item comes to the end of its life cycle, various elements of the products are used again to create further value.

Circularity, if one is to follow the UN’s sustainable development goals, is about “doing more and better with less,” a concept that will encourage industry firms across the continent to develop clever, innovative applications with new forms of technologies.

One recent example of Europe’s transition towards a circular economy is the establishment of the Circular Plastics Alliance, announced by the Commission in December. The Alliance comprises key industry stakeholders and regulators and attempts to explore methods by which the materials can be recycled more efficiently, across the full plastics value chain.

The project is regarded as a significant element in pursuance of the targets set out in the 2018 European Strategy for Plastics, which aims to make recycling profitable, put an end to sea littering, drive investment, and develop international standards worldwide by becoming a global leader in the fight against plastic pollution.

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Agents of change

Policymakers in Brussels see the need to support industry in pursuance of environmental goals. Horizon 2020 has provided funding across research and development, while 5.5 billion euros in cohesion funds have been put aside to improve waste management across Europe.

In terms of policy support, in addition to the Circular Plastics Alliance, there is the Bioeconomy Strategy, which aims to explore alternatives to fossil resources, and the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU), a public-private partnership supporting the EU’s bio-based industrial sector.

One such success story of the BBI JU is the FRESH initiatives, which aims to tackle the issue of non-biodegradable food packaging by developing GMO-free material that is fully biodegradable.

The coordinator of the project, Steve Davey, of Huhtamaki Molded Fiber Technology in the Netherlands, revealed the innovative methods by which industry had put to practice in producing the packaging.

“At the base of the FRESH innovation is a natural cellulose-based material derived from wood mixed with a plant-derived polyester,” he told the Commission’s Horizon 2020 magazine.

“We then use a new lamination technology to add on a new generation plant-based biofilm. Our process delivers a non-fossil packaging material with all the technical properties a high-end, ready meal tray needs.”

Moreover, Davey understands that such innovative answers to the tough social and environmental questions of our day will not, of course, be concentrated solely to the food packaging industry.

On the contrary, the FRESH project was a means of trialling the technology to analyse its impact more widely across European industrial sectors.

“We wanted to focus on a very particular application to prove the technology,” Davey said. “When we succeed then of course further research could expand.”

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Sustainable buildings

Consumer products are of course only one area in which the industry can evolve to face pressing societal issues. Another area is in the building and housing sector, responsible for around 40% of energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions in the EU.

A report published by the European Environment Agency on Tuesday (4 February) warned that the “health of Europe’s most vulnerable citizens remains disproportionately affected” by a range of hazards including pollution and extreme temperatures.

The revised Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, which came into force in 2018, includes measures that attempt to boost the rate of building renovation towards more energy efficient systems and improve the energy performance of new buildings.

One method by which the technology sector is meeting the challenges set out by the legislation is to embark on ambitious investment commitments designed to support the burgeoning smart housing market.

Smart homes comprise integrated platforms where interoperable devices operate intuitively and automatically, with the essential aim of reducing high energy expenditures in the market. Connected software within the home is able to respond to the needs of consumers based on real-time interactions that lead to learning lifestyle patterns.

The onset of smart housing, accelerated by a financial instrument approved by the European Investment Bank in 2018, the Smart Finance for Smart Building Initiative, poses exciting opportunities. The funds pledged by the EIB are estimated to support up to 220,000 new jobs as well as help to establish a renovation market for small businesses worth up to  €120 billion.

One of the greatest advantages to EU industry in the rolling out of smart housing, are the new opportunities to work alongside consumers in providing solutions to market demand. With a considerably expanded data pool, business can now use Internet of Things (IoT) devices in the smart home to offer tailored solutions to consumers.

With the financial support offered up by EU institutions, sustainable and connected buildings can offer solutions both to environmental goals, while at the same time, driving demand across technological industries to meet growing consumer trends in an increasingly socially responsible world.

Cañete’s reference to the EU’s “global climate leadership” earlier this year will come by way of innovative industry solutions to global societal problems.

With the appropriate investment programmes and policy frameworks, the EU’s tech industries will be able to take responsibility in the clean energy transition, enabling the EU, as Cañete says, to “show leadership to the rest of the world in the fight against global warming.”

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