Resource efficiency work must start now, not in 10 years

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

This spring the European Commission will publish a package on resource efficiency and the circular economy. This must include strong indicators on the EU’s use of resources and set a clear path to reduce the overconsumption of water, land, raw materials and carbon, writes Magda Stoczkiewicz.

Magda Stoczkiewicz is director of Friends of the Earth Europe, an environmental pressure group.

Europe’s current modus operandi is not sustainable and this is creating environmental, economic and social problems. The terrible floods in the UK are just one of the most obvious signs that all is not well with the planet. The European Commission’s upcoming package on resource efficiency and the circular economy must be strong if we are to have any chance of reducing our impact on the planet and moving towards a more sustainable way of living and more efficient ways of doing business.

As explained during a conference we hosted in Brussels this week, we believe that the best way to achieve this would be to include “four footprints” in the package to enable the resource use of the 28 EU member states to be measured. The best ways to decrease this use can then be found.  The footprint approach is effective because it includes both the resources consumed domestically and those used to create imported products. The four footprints we want included are: a material footprint to calculate the tonnage of material used by the EU; a carbon footprint to measure climate change gases released; a water footprint to assess the volume of water used; and a land footprint to calculate the area of land used by the EU anywhere in the world.

Using these footprints together is clearly the best way we currently have of measuring resource use. And, in these times of economic, as well as environmental, challenges, helping countries and companies to be more efficient is beneficial for both the planet and the bottom line.

“The EU is very resource poor and it is in its own interest to be a leader,” said Jo Leinen, former chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee, at the conference. He agreed that setting clear targets for resource efficiency would be good for the environment and “would be in the interest of industry, showing them where to invest and go in the next ten years”.  

And leading EU companies are just as supportive. Florence Coulamy, sustainability manager at Unilever, a company that has measured its water and carbon footprints, explained to attendees that resource efficiency can “drive new ways of thinking and doing business”.

In its efforts to decouple growth and its environmental footprint, Ms Coulamy said her company has “drastically reduced” its environmental impact at a factory level, cutting greenhouse gases from energy by one-third and reducing non-hazardous manufacturing waste by 50%. Further, half of Unilever’s 250 factories now have zero-waste-to-landfill. These steps have helped the company to “drastically reduce costs by about €300 million since 2008,” she added.

Without clear targets these results would never have been achieved. The Commission must now take the lead in ensuring that all companies have the tools to tackle the problem of overuse of resources.

The Commission is slowly engaging with all four footprints, announcing this week that it will launch a public consultation on land as a resource at a conference in Brussels on 19 June. The results will help inform a communication on land resources that the Commission plans to publish in 2015.  This is likely to include a set of indicators on how to measure “land degradation and land multi-functionality” and an assessment of potential policy instruments that could be introduced at an EU level, said Commission policy officer Jacques Delsalle.

This is good news, but we have no time to lose. Land is a key resource and we only have one planet. We may need to improve data and methodologies of the land footprint, but this is not an excuse for delay, and this is not simply the opinion of Friends of the Earth. A landmark report published at the end of January by UNEP’s International Resource Panel called for countries to monitor and control global land use and set a target of 0.2 hectares of land-use per person by 2030. The EU currently uses 0.31 hectares per person.

The UK government-backed Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimated in a roadmap  published last year that European businesses could save €400 billion by 2020 if they worked together to create a more resource efficient economy. As Jo Leinen said, we must start work on this “now, not in 10 years”.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik has emphasised the need for much greater resource efficiency and the benefits it will bring throughout his mandate. In his final few months he must   turn fine words into lasting concrete actions. Only by doing this will his legacy is befitting his recognition by UNEP as a “champion of the earth” for his work on resource-efficiency. 

Friends of the Earth Europe: Presentations from the conference

Subscribe to our newsletters