“David and Goliath” speech by Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director, EEA

Speech Published 03 Jun 2008 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
3 June 2008, Green Week, Brussels

A combination of ambitious policies will be needed to steer European consumption in a more sustainable direction.

Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director



Chair, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our current consumption and production patterns may well lie behind our material wealth … but they are also responsible for many negative impacts on the environment.

These impacts are rising … and could lead to significant consequences for our planet and humankind if action is not taken to put our consumption and production on a sustainable path.

Today, I will address three main points:

First, I will highlight some changes in consumption in Europe and the world and what these developments mean for the environment.

Second, I will use some examples to illustrate the limits of the resources we have available here in Europe.

Third, I will set out some ideas concerning what might constitute pathways towards sustainable consumption in Europe.

I am reminded of the story of David and Goliath where Goliath represents ever increasing consumption. The brave David is searching in his policy toolbox for the right stone to put in his sling. I will come back to this later.

High and rising consumption in Europe and world-wide

Let me start with an overview of consumption patterns in Europe, compared to the rest of the world, and their projected development over time.

Europeans have become a society of consumers. Consumption fuels our economy. Shopping for some has become a favourite pastime, even a hobby.

On average, Europe’s consumption is high compared to other regions in the world. Although European Union citizens constitute only 7 % of the world population, we consume

  • 15 % of world meat production,
  • 15 % of world energy consumption
  • 24 % of world paper production.

The level of consumption in Europe has increased over the past years. Household consumption expenditure in EU-25 increased by 25 % over the last 15 years. While the food expenditure has not changed much, on average, Europeans spend more and more on transport and communication, housing, recreation, health and education.

We can also observe that consumption patterns in the EU-10 Member States are moving closer to the EU-15 countries. This reflects a change in lifestyles and a general increase in disposable income. But to be honest, it also reflects a strengthening of the marketing profession in these countries.

But in spite of the already high consumption levels, many outlooks project further increasing consumption of materials and energy in Europe … and citizens from developing countries around the world are rapidly catching up.

Let me give you a few examples to illustrate this:

  • If current technological trends continue … and government policies that have been adopted are fully implemented … total energy consumption per capita in OECD countries will grow by 11.4 % and the world average is projected to grow by about 27.5 % in the period 2004 to 2030.
  • Under the same assumptions, passenger transport per capita is projected to grow rapidly over the coming years, increasing by almost 70% in Western European Countries, almost tripling in Eastern European Countries over 50 years (between 2000 and 2050).
  • Global meat consumption is projected by the FAO to grow by 50 % by 2030.
  • And as a final example: growing consumption of products is also reflected in the amounts of municipal waste which are projected to grow by 25 % in EU-25 between 2005 and 2020.

Impacts of consumption on the environment

Let’s take a look now at what impact this high … and ever-rising … consumption has on the environment.

Consumption of goods and services is responsible for high environmental impacts over the whole life-cycle of their production, consumption and disposal.

Analyses from the EEA and from the European Commission show that the consumption areas such as food and drink, housing (including energy use and construction), and mobility cause around two thirds of major environmental pressures over their whole life-cycle, especially in terms of emissions of greenhouse gases, and other air emissions and materials use.

Globally, the pressure on land is enormous: in order to meet the world’s increasing demand for food, feed, energy from biomass and for urbanization, 73 000 km² of forest area every year, on average, has been converted to farmland, grassland and urban areas over the last two decades. That is an area of forest roughly equivalent to the size of the Czech Republic disappearing every year.

Although the forest area is growing in Europe, it is decreasing rapidly elsewhere in the world, especially in the tropical areas. Globally, livestock production is the largest user of agricultural land and more arable land will be needed to meet the projected 50 % increase of worldwide meat consumption by 2030.

The example of biomass from forests and agriculture provides an instructive case study.

The use of biomass for energy purposes is currently high on the political agenda. The EEA has analysed the potential for biomass-to-energy in Europe and has come to the conclusion that biomass can indeed play an important role in meeting the growing demand for energy and materials and to reduce GHG emissions.

In European forests, the harvested amount of wood currently amounts to around two thirds of the annual increment in wood volumes. A substantial amount of additional stemwood and felling residues could be harvested for energy purposes without major ecological concerns.

However, environmental constraints have to be respected, especially when it comes to deadwood which is important for preserving biodiversity. It should be left in the forests.

When it comes to agriculture, the potential for growing biomass for energy purposes in Europe is also substantial but we need to consider Europe’s role in meeting future world food demand without destroying remaining world forest resources through indirect land use change effects outside Europe.

At yesterday’s session of the Environment Committee in the European Parliament the rapporteur presented sustainability criteria for renewable energy and in particular the production of biofuels. The most important point here is what the Agency continues to say, namely that we should be using the right feedstock for the right purposes.

For example, the most cost-effective way of using European biomass is using it for electricity and heat rather than for biofuels for road transport.

We also need to consider the projected increase in global food demand and agricultural land area due to world population growth (from 6.5 billion to over 8.2 billion people in 2030) and increasing average incomes. The latest OECD Environmental Outlook projects that food and biofuel production together will require a 10 per cent increase in farmland worldwide by 2030. The contribution of expanding bioenergy production therefore must be carefully analysed taking into account the need to respect ecosystem services, preventing further loss of virgin forests and savannahs, halting the loss of biodiversity and addressing climate change.

Sustainability criteria alone will not solve the problem of increasing demand and the increasing pressures resulting from this demand. In the meantime, Europe should seek to generate as much of its bioenergy as possible domestically, whilst sustaining a balance between food, fuel and fibre production, and without compromising ecosystem services.

Pathways towards sustainable consumption in Europe

At this point, I would like to come back to my metaphor of David and Goliath. Now we know just how big the Goliath has become, and just how small our arsenal of stones has been.

A combination of ambitious policies will be needed to steer European consumption in a more sustainable direction.

Information on products, sustainable and less sustainable options for consumers can play an important role in changing behaviour … but information tools usually only reach a limited group of consumers.

Economic instruments can also be effective … internalisation of environmental (and social) costs into production and products, for example through setting a price on CO2 emissions, have been shown to work.

Higher standards for production and products can support the uptake of more sustainable consumption options and make unsustainable products and services less attractive. However, this is again a very limited response to such a giant challenge.

Policies that increase the efficiency of energy, material and land use play an important role in reducing the consumption footprint. But we have to bear in mind that rising consumption often outweighs efficiency improvements. For example, despite the fact that the average fuel consumption per car in EU-15 has decreased by 10 % due to technical improvements since 1990, the overall fuel consumption by cars in the same period increased by 20 %, mainly because more and more people own a car and the number of kilometres travelled increased. It remains a sad fact that many consumers simply prefer larger and less fuel-efficient cars. Eco-labelling and other purely voluntary instruments alone are unlikely to reverse these trends

The initiatives within the expected action plan on sustainable consumption and production and sustainable industry policies, including action on product labelling, energy-using products, EMAS, green public procurement, eco-efficiency, eco-innovation and others, will only address some of the aspects of consumption.

Maybe there is a David somewhere in Europe who will find the magic stone to slay Goliath. We can only hope so.

But in the meantime we need to find a way to tame Goliath.

One of the main problems of our economies today is that the indicator that we use to measure whether we are moving in the right direction – GDP (Gross Domestic Product) – is misleading.

An important step forward to drive economic thinking ‘beyond GDP’ is the G8+5 Potsdam initiative to produce an assessment around the economics of biodiversity and ecosystems. The EEA is actively supporting this initiative. We published partial land accounts for Europe in 2006, and will publish fuller accounts for wetlands this year. We are also currently managing a study on the benefits and costs of forest biodiversity on the global level.

The ultimate purpose of “ecosystem accounting” is to measure the gap between the reality of ecosystem integrity and the objectives stated in national laws, European regulations and directives and international conventions (Biodiversity Convention, Kyoto protocol…) and then to calculate the costs of maintaining the full complement of ecosystem services, sustainability and restoration costs of meeting these objectives.

For both countries and companies, calculations of the full cost of commodities must include not only market prices, but also carbon, water and other resources. This is what going beyond GDP is starting to look like. What is actually needed is a smart GDP - going beyond today’s measure to one in which the good things count positively and the bad things count negatively.

The EEA is playing its part in trying to bring about the shift in thinking that is required to frame sustainable consumption efforts.

We may not find the stone. We may not find David in time. But perhaps we can tame Goliath.



Document Actions