Greening the entire economy; not just a handful of new sectors

Article Published 17 Mar 2014 Last modified 11 May 2021
3 min read
Photo: © G. Karadeniz/EEA
We need to change the way we produce goods and services. We need to ‘green’ our economy. But this does not consist of developing just a number of selected sectors, such as renewables, eco-innovation, corresponding to 5 or even 10 percent of our economy. It requires greening the entire economy. The question is: ‘How do we create a performing economy that creates jobs and ensures our well-being, and yet respects the limits of our planet?’

The concept of green economy requires us to reformulate fundamentally the way we produce, consume and live in a way so that our economic activities do not harm human health and the environment. But why do we need to green our economy?

Living well within planetary limits

The first and simple reason is that our planet has limits. Currently, we are using more resources than our planet can produce in a given time. In other words, we are living beyond our means and borrowing from the future. This means we will have less of some natural resources available in the future.

At the same time, we are weakening the resilience of our natural systems: their ability to regenerate and to produce, but also their capacity to adapt to turbulence and changes such as climate change. This often translates into fewer benefits or ecosystem services from nature. Even when the size of forest areas or the agricultural land remain the same, they can clean less air or provide less timber and smaller yields because of pollution and other pressures.

Unsustainable use of resources is not just an environmental problem. It has economic and social implications both within a country and in the world. Access to resources, exposure to pollution and the state of our natural capital are key factors in determining our health, well-being and quality of life in general. The current consumption and production patterns are reducing our life expectancy and quality of life.

Wasting valuable resources

We must change also because we are actually wasting valuable resources. Some of these resources are very difficult or impossible to replace. For example, rare earth metals or copper are highly traded goods in world markets. But when the electronic devices containing them are sent to landfills, they have no value; only environmental costs – a pure economic waste on top of the loss of irreplaceable resources.

A sustainable use of resources is directly linked to the way we produce. The design of what we produce and consume has to be drastically improved to stop wastage. What gets extracted needs to be used again and again. The left over of one process needs to become the input of another. And it is possible. We are now able to capture methane from cattle farms and use it for heating – something unimaginable decades ago.

We need to explore new technological possibilities and make innovative solutions the norm. And research and business communities play a key role here. A mix of economic incentives and regulations can boost innovation and can actually improve the competiveness of European industry.

Energy, industry, agriculture, transport…

Green economy principles need to be integrated in a wide spectrum of policies. Recent policies from the EU, including as the ‘Roadmap to a Resource-Efficient Europe’, are aiming exactly at better integration and coherence between policy targets. For example, the EU is aiming at raising the share of manufacturing in the Union’s economy. This goal needs to be achieved by taking into account another EU goal: to reduce energy use by 20% by 2020. We are also aiming at reducing greenhouse gas emissions substantially. Can we achieve this objective without seriously reviewing our transport or agriculture policies?

A fundamental transformation of the existing systems will take time. In the EU we are currently shaping a four-decade perspective up to 2050, with more specific goals and benchmarks for 2020 and 2030. Although the transition might be a long-term process, it requires urgent action. Some infrastructure works need to start today.

The EEA’s work in this area complements the work carried out by other institutions, including the European Commission, UNEP and OECD. We contribute to a wide range of issues from waste management and consumption to health and chemicals in the environment. We are also working on environmental accounting methods as well as environmental taxes. This knowledge base will be elaborated further and continue providing guidance to policy makers.



Executive Director

Editorial published in the issue no. 2014/1 of the EEA newsletter, March 2014


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