The environment cannot be an afterthought to the economy

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

Luc Bas, Director of the Brussels office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) [Photo: IUCN]

Luc Bas, Director of the Brussels office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. [IUCN]

How do we communicate the need for fundamental change beyond this group of environmentalists, scientists and progressive businesses? asks Luc Bas.

Luc Bas is the Director of the Brussels office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Last week, twenty civil society organisations pulled together to oppose efforts from a part of the European business community to achieve a withdrawal or overhaul of pending EU legislative proposals, including the EU’s Circular Economy Package and legislation to improve air quality.

Though research shows that environmental regulations are valued by 95% of EU citizens and represent less than 1% of the estimated total administrative burden in the EU, they are too often viewed as a hindrance to economic development.

It’s time to stress that the environment cannot be an afterthought to the economy, but rather, is the basis for it.

Noting this challenge, the European Environmental Bureau’s (EEB) 40th Anniversary Conference was well-timed to discuss the decisive crossroads for the future of EU environmental policies and regulations. Both the new structure of the European Commission and its mandate for a focus on ‘better regulation’ will define Europe’s environmental standards for the years to come. One of these initiatives is the Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT) of the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives, which aims to create a “simple, clear and predictable regulatory framework for business and citizens alike”. However, we must not forget that the EU’s position as a global leader in sustainability is built on its highly successful environmental legislation, including its nature directives, which have helped introduce some of the highest environmental standards in the world, and have also given the EU’s innovative industries a competitive edge.

At the conference, Commissioner Vella pointed out that “Today, it is no longer a matter of choosing between economic growth and environmental protection. They must co-exist. Environmental protection is an economic opportunity.” He reassured participants that there were no intentions to weaken environmental regulations, but also noted that adding layer upon layer of legislation could be economically unproductive.

What is more important is to question the underlying assumption that everlasting GDP-growth is the Holy Grail we should be vying for. Not only does pursuing this goal frequently lead to shortsighted measures. It is also achieved at the expense of our natural environment. I was therefore glad to see many panelists argue for a more radical paradigm shift, not just incremental change, to ensure a transition to genuine sustainable development. This included some very authoritative voices such as Connie Hedegaard (former Commissioner for Climate Action), Simon Upton (Director of the Environment Directorate of the OECD), Sunita Narain (Director General of the Centre for Science and the Environment in India) and Joachim Spangenberg (Vice-President of the Sustainable Europe Research Institute), who were unanimous in recognising the shortcomings of incremental change to ensure long-term human prosperity.

We need to focus on the underlying issues, particularly over-consumption which spurs unsustainable growth. We also cannot postpone thorough action by arguing that we don’t have a full and “perfect” solution. We must take the first steps to ensure that a paradigm shift takes effect, based on current science, and adapt as we gain more knowledge. Above all, we must address our society’s wrongful acceptance of unsustainable lifestyles. As Mr. Spangenberg noted, “We must stop doing things in the best possible way if they are things that should not be done at all”.

At the conference, I moderated the session ‘Threats to Nature’. However, these are really threats to humankind, as we depend on nature in every aspect of our lives. After all, nature does not need us. But we do need nature.

Participants at the EEB conference, predominantly members of the environmental community, generally shared these views. This reminded me of our biggest challenge: how do we communicate the need for fundamental change beyond this group of environmentalists, scientists and progressive businesses? This will require a clear and powerful joint narrative that speaks to a wider audience with a variety of different interests and values, for which the protection of our natural environment may not yet be the necessary priority.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe

Want to know what's going on in the EU Capitals daily? Subscribe now to our new 9am newsletter.