This article is part of our special report Resource efficiency: towards a circular economy.
Changing behaviour by using the markets and prices holds the key to a resource-efficient economy, said Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik yesterday (23 March), outlining a future flagship European initiative on the issue.
Delivering a lecture at the Lisbon Council think-tank in Brussels, Poto?nik stressed that EU environmental laws and eco-technologies are not enough to creating a resource-efficient economy, and that several other things would need to change.
Absent from its predecessor, the EU's Lisbon Agenda for Growth and Jobs, resource efficiency now features as one of the seven flagship initiatives proposed in its successor, the 'Europe 2020' strategy.
While Europe 2020 is designed "to hasten the exit from the crisis," it is also a ten-year strategy expected to provide the building blocks for sustainable growth with less pressure on energy and resources, said Poto?nik, stressing the need to take "the longest view possible" on the matter.
However, he warned that the commitment to resource efficiency must not become merely a "handy buzzword" for greenwashing, used without understanding of what different actors must do to make it happen.
Resource efficiency – living, producing and consuming within the Earth's limits – means much more than energy efficiency and low-carbon growth, Poto?nik underlined.
The concept of resource efficiency includes consideration of material resources, such as metals, minerals and food, as well as natural systems which provide services, including clean air and water, he went on.
It "isn't just about promoting the growth of a lucrative niche of eco-innovation companies" to clean up industry either, he added, stressing the need to "green the whole economy" by developing cleaner industry in general.
Group of commissioners to steer policy on resource efficiency
The EU is not starting from scratch on resource efficiency, with European policies already in place on sustainable production and consumption, sustainable industrial policy and raw materials. But there is not yet a streamlined approach to the issue, Poto?nik said.
As resource use concerns all forms of economic activity and thus many policy areas, Poto?nik said he would work in close cooperation with the commissioners responsible for energy, transport, industry, trade, agriculture, fisheries and research to ensure coherence between different policy areas.
An ad-hoc group of commissioners will be formed to hold discussions and lead the development of initiatives in all the relevant services of the EU executive.
Poto?nik also said he would gather around him a group of experts to work on resource efficiency in the second half of 2010. The EU executive foresees hosting a public consultation on the matter ahead of releasing a proposal, which the Commission expects to table in 2011.
One of the most pressing objectives, said Poto?nik, is the need to develop indicators and targets for resource efficiency to allow policymakers to induce the right changes (EURACTIV 21/10/09).
Changing behaviour through pricing
Meanwhile, the environment commissioner said he would need the help of the private sector and "member states to buy into the concept" if the behaviour of European consumers is to change.
"We need to change our behaviour, as consumers and as producers. And to do that we need to make our markets work in ways which put a proper value on the resources we use," Poto?nik said.
Stress on natural resources can be reduced only if the relative prices of different inputs into the economy are changed to reflect the real value of those resources, he argued. He also stressed that changing price signals is a more efficient means of changing behaviour than "the heavy hand of regulation".
Fiscal reform, putting an end to environmentally harmful subsidies
Recognising that the matter touches on national sovereignty, Poto?nik said he hopes to persuade fiscal policymakers "to move beyond concerns for raising revenue" and to use their fiscal tools to "set another direction for our economic development".
He also suggested adjusting prices by getting rid of environmentally harmful subsidies, particularly in the fields of agriculture, fisheries and forestry, which would foster greater innovation and help eliminate inefficient technologies and business structures.