Innovation as answer to resource constraints

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Climate change rally. Qatar, 2012. [Oxfam/Flickr]

In a joint contribution for EURACTIV, members of the European Parliament, Sirpa Pietikäinen, Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, Philippe Lamberts and Jo Leinen, call for a new industrial paradigm shift as a solution for the increasing scarcity of natural resources in Europe.

In the aftermath of the crisis, economic growth and job creation are high on the agenda. But at the same time, it’s increasingly evident that there is a limit to growth in terms of availability of natural resources, which means our companies must respond to an increasing scarcity of natural resources.

In order to set the right incentives to decouple economic growth from natural resource use, a coherent policy framework is needed. Voluntary action bring us only half-way: as confirmed by recent OECD findings, ‘environmental effectiveness of voluntary approaches is often questionable, and their economic efficiency is generally low.’

The final set of recommendations by the European Resource Efficiency Platform (EREP), published today, Monday March 31st, outline the main features of how this policy framework should look like. One of the main recommendations is to set a target of improving material productivity “well over 30%” between now and 2030, even though we – as Members of the European Parliament – would have preferred the clear call for a more ambitious 40% target to go beyond the business as usual scenario. Sadly, this target was not acceptable to other Members of the Platform. We nevertheless support setting a binding material productivity target and urge the Commission to include a credible and ambitious target in the future legislation.

The facts are convincing: The EU is poor in mineral resources and therefore the biggest importer of raw materials. We get 48% of our copper ore from abroad, 64% of zinc and bauxite as well as 78% of nickel. We import all of our cobalt, platinum, titanium and vanadium. As a highly import dependent continent, managing our resources efficiently is first and foremost a question of economic sense. With the expectation that the global demand of resources will triple by 2050 and the demand for food, feed and fibre will increase by 70%, there is no doubt that we need to drastically change our consumption and production patterns.

Despite improvements in the efficient use of resources that have already occurred, continuous growth in worldwide production has outstripped these gains in efficiency; resource extraction continues to rise dramatically on a global level. In a resource-constrained world, the old habit of “extract-use-throw away” only leads to further dependency on external suppliers and vulnerability to price hikes.

Thus a new industrial paradigm shift towards a well-functioning circular economy is urgently needed. An economic system where materials are sustainably sourced, reused and recycled in order to limit the amount of virgin raw materials ‘entering’ the cycle as well as the end of life waste ‘leaving’ the cycle will make Europe more resilient towards the growing global demand for natural resources.

Furthermore, in order to moderate the demand for resources while meeting customer needs, new business models will have to be promoted and encouraged such as product-service systems. These systems comprise a mix of tangible products and intangible service designed and combined so that they are jointly capable of fulfilling final customer needs.

Already in 2012, the European Parliament called for clear, robust and measurable indicators for economic activity that take account of climate change, biodiversity and resource efficiency from a life-cycle perspective and to use these indicators as a basis for legislative initiatives and concrete reduction targets.

To ensure our own well-being and give future generations the possibility to enjoy the same benefits as we do, we need to start operating within our planet’s boundaries, and decouple our economic growth from our resource use. We simply cannot afford to sit back and relax, expecting that our economy magically becomes sustainable all by itself. The highly competitive world we live in and the spectacular rise of emerging economies do not give us this much time. That’s why politics should step in and set an ambitious and credible target. This focuses political attention and allows to monitor whether policy is on the right track. Already, a 30% improvement in resource productivity by 2030 delivers an increase in GDP of almost one percent by 2030, creates more than 2 million additional jobs and brings us on track to a more resource efficient Europe with ecological, economic and social benefits.

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