Potočnik: Resource efficiency key to EU’s success

9 May 2014

By Steve Eminton

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik has this week emphasised the use of secondary resources from reuse and recycling as being crucial to the successful development of the economy in Europe.

And, he confirmed to letsrecycle.com that a resource efficiency target for industry is likely to be included in a package of Circular Economy measures to be published next month although it will not be a legal measure to be imposed on individual businesses or governments.

He also pointed to “worrying trends” in terms of population growth and the need for resources saying that “it’s pretty simple, we have to change the way we produce, consume and basically the way we live.”

Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik in his Brussels office
Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik in his Brussels office

Next month’s package is likely to be the final overarching set of measures to be brought forward by Commissioner Potočnik whose current term of office ends in October 2014. A new commissioner will be appointed this year in the wake of this month’s European elections.

In terms of resource efficiency for industry, the Commissioner was asked whether a 30% target might be set. This would fit in with the Resource Efficiency Platform’s suggestion for the EU to set a target for a “substantially increased decoupling of growth from the use of natural resources, in order to improve competitiveness and growth as well as quality of life”.

Responding, Commissioner Potočnik praised the work of the Platform: “This has representatives from the business sector, a lot of CEOs, colleagues from the Commission, MEPs, civil society, trade unions, consumers – it is really a high level group. They have advised us that we should set a clear target on resource productivity because they believe that in line with the philosophy that I have explained, it would be necessary and helpful in guiding future political incentives and behaviour in the business sector.

“When I think about that target I do not have in mind a legally binding target, I do not have in mind a target which will be applicable to each sector and each sectoral level but basically it will be a target on the European level and give a clear political signal. At the same time that this is giving an answer to competitiveness challenges of European industry it is giving an answer to the better and more efficient use of resources and protecting future environmental challenges.”

Resource productivity

Commissioner Potočnik went on to highlight the importance of resource productivity for businesses. This is because of the significant percentage of costs attributed to the use of resources – resource productivity is needed as much as labour productivity.

He said: “Nowadays it has much important as I think as labour productivity, for example, data from German industry shows you can connect approximately 18% of the costs to labour and 43% of the costs to resources.”

The ‘philosophy’ mentioned by the Commissioner sees him linking the resource pressures with how the world is developing and the basic questions surrounding this. “What we need to understand is where the world is today, how it is going and what are the major challenges – not only from the environment perspective, but also on competitiveness and the structural reforms that are needed in Europe.”

Commissioner Potočnik cited two growth factors which cannot be ignored:

  • Population size; and
  • per capita consumption.

“We are currently seven billion on the planet and the expectations are that we will be nine billion in one generation. We will have an additional population more than there was at the beginning of 20th century. At the beginning there was 1.5 billion, and the growth is more than 200,000 per day: the biggest economy in Europe, Germany, in one year, or in 9 days and six hours, my own country Slovenia – that is how fast things are going."

'If we continue to have business as usual, we will need approx three times resources by 2050'

- Commissioner Potocnik

The harsh reality of meeting consumer demand in the face of population growth was highlighted by the Commissioner, who explained that calculations by McKinsey had found there are likely to be an additional three billion consumers who today are living in poverty and will be moving to middle class consumption.

“So if we continue to have business as usual, we will need approx three times more resources by 2050, approx. 70% more food, feed and fibre by 2050 than we are using today and there are also estimates that if we continue on the path of business as usual till 2030 that we will be 40% short of drinking water.

“And if you take into account that already 60% of the ecosystems which are underpinning those resources are basically used unsustainably or are degraded, then I think the conclusion you do that is that we have to change the way we produce, consume and basically the way we live, it’s pretty simple.”

Economic opportunity

A way for Europe to cope, he explained, is to make better use of resources and turn this into an economic opportunity. “Estimates are that half of everything which is inbuilt into our products is actually imported, so if we put all those four elements together for our products we should use less water, use less raw materials, use less energy and use resources which can be reused and recycled.

“That is the best competitive opportunity and so a trend in which we have to go.” Manufacturers are beginning to understand that there will be demand for products but there is the inevitable need to use resources more efficiently, he said.

Commissioner Potocnik argues that the economy and the environment are the two sides of the same coin
Commissioner Potocnik argues that the economy and the environment are the two sides of the same coin

“There are many good examples of manufacturers beginning to understand this and I think it is important to turn those good examples into mainstream economic activity. We should not only talk about changes in eco industries such as water or waste management - the major challenge is how to turn the traditional industries, the ones who are more locked in to old business models into that kind of new developments which are here among us.”

Message

The Commissioner believes that his aims in terms of resource efficiency are part of a simple message. He says that in his five years in office, he was trying to make sure that people would “understand a simple message that economy and the environment are two sides of the same coin and we should stop flipping that coin. You cannot seriously address the question of protecting the environment in the longer term if you do not go to the essence of economic behaviour and on the other hand you cannot seriously talk about future economic development, future jobs, future growth if you do not take into account the very essence of environmental challenges which are here among us today.”

He strengthened his reasoning, and argued: “Everyone one needs a job. We all think about that and at the same time everybody who has a job and a position in business, when they come home, they take their jacket off  everyone wants clean water and to breathe clean air. We should start to understand that these two persons are the same person.”

'Absolutely enjoyed'

Looking over his term of office and to the future, Commissioner Potočnik says that he has “absolutely enjoyed the position” and he is clearly delighted at the way his post links people to the environment.

He comments: “It’s really an excellent portfolio. There is something in common with both portfolios which I have had responsibility for, one was science and research and the other is the environment. They are close to citizens’ beliefs, worry and interest, because they see the potential of the quality of life in environmental preservation as much as they also see it in the new opportunities through research and development as can be given through innovation and human ingenuity.”

'We are actually boosting and creating jobs and creating foundations for sustainable growth'

– Commissioner Potocnik

As for a future role within the Commission: he says, to what is a hypothetical question, that he would like to continue with his job! However, a return to the same position is not expected by many observers as all the Commissioner posts are up for grabs after the election. Should he not return to the Commission, he might even find time to tour Europe to speak about the circular economy – “I am getting so many invitations to speak about these items from every country in the European economy.”

Biggest achievement

And what is his biggest achievement? He responds that it is putting the circular economy and resource efficiency on the agenda: “Putting some of the things on the agenda so that they cannot disappear from that agenda and to put in for strategic consideration the questions which are connected with the preservation of the environment, human health and to connect those issues with economic behaviour and choices.”

Commissioner Potočnik also cautioned against the sort of thinking which sees environmental legislation as “useless red tape whereas we are actually boosting and creating jobs and creating foundations for sustainable growth. We should not see this as a disadvantage of the European Union – we should see this as an opportunity for future development."

THIS IS THE FIRST PART OF AN INTERVIEW WITH COMMISSIONER POTOCNIK. FOR THE SECOND PART, CLICK HERE.

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