Finding the pathways towards sustainable consumption and production in Europe

Speech Published 04 Oct 2007 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Professor Jacqueline McGlade’s speech at Conference “Time for Action: Towards Sustainable Consumption and Production in Europe”, Ljubljana. Slovenia, 27-29 September 2007
Minister, Co-chair, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is time for change. Time to redesign the way we live consume and produce in Europe. To look sustainable consumption and production not as an end goal, but rather, as a vision of pathways that can help meet the needs of Europe’s citizens without destroying the environment or meeting dead-ends.

Not only is the location of our conference here in Ljubljana - between the mountains and the coast of beautiful Slovenia – excellent, but also the timing. The stakeholder consultation on the European Action Plans on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) and on Sustainable Industrial Policy was launched in July and is just about to end. At the same time, many European countries are implementing their action plans on sustainable consumption and production. And at the global level, those involved in the Marrakech process are working hard to put together the framework of programmes on SCP that world leaders agreed to develop at the world summit in Johannesburg.

Today, I would like to cover three main issues.

First, I will look at elements of a vision for a more sustainable Europe – one with redesigned consumption and production patterns.

Second, I would like to share with you some thoughts as to why the way we currently consume and produce in Europe is unsustainable, perhaps even unstoppable, for Europe and other regions of the world.

Third, I will propose some ideas as to how we can find the pathways to make the vision come true, by first taking some time for reflection – a process well described by the word “accomodador”.

Let me start by considering the way forward:Towards a vision for a more sustainable Europe with redesigned consumption and production patterns.

We are more and more often confronted with long term problems for which the outcomes are highly uncertain. Making sense in a complex world, requires that we separate out straightforward problems that can be solved through exchange of best practice, complicated ones where good practice helps, complex problems where practices are emerging and problems borne out of chaotic systems where novel practices are needed. If we want to address seriously the sustainability of our consumption and production we need to recognise uncertainties about the future, go beyond the short timescales of current policies and change our current preoccupation with working on many separate issues. We need to develop policies that reflect the complexity of the systems we are dealing with, so that we can address the needs of today’s disenfranchised of as well as those of future generations.

If we look for example 25 to 30 years ahead. What kind of society would we like to see?

We would like to continue to have a good quality of life in the 2030s – a human well-being based on secure access to clean water and healthy food, to mobility and decent housing, with equity in access to education and social security. But how can we achieve a good quality of life that is not simply a process of exporting our problems to the detriment of the quality of other regions of the world, that does not cause irreversible changes or loss of the provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural services from ecosystems.

To be on the pathway to this vision, we will have to substantially improve the efficiency of our energy, material and land use and reduce emissions of both climate change gases and pollutants. We should be looking more carefully at the delivery of products and services from cradle to cradle rather than from cradle to grave, at entire supply chains and at eco-design and enhanced environmental performance using such ideas as zero emissions and low carbon projected by leading businesses in a number of major industries.

But changes in production have to be accompanied by a shift in our consumer model. One proposal is to gradually move from a society of assets and ownership of goods to one where access to services is the driver. Long-life products and urban settings where most trips can be made by bike, foot or public transport could help deliver this part of the vision.

Europe relies not only on its own resources, but to a large extent on the resources from other parts of the world. But our emissions – for example of greenhouse gases and persistent chemicals – affect not only Europe’s environment but the global environment. The widely cited indicator of the ecological footprint shows in an easily understandable way that the footprint of the EU is larger than our bio-capacity.

Moving on to the second issue: Showing examples of why the way we consume and produce in Europe is not sustainable

Our consumption and production puts high pressures on the environment in Europe and the rest of the world. Let me highlight a few examples:

  • In EU-25 as much as 7 billion tonnes of materials - fossil fuels, minerals and biomass – extracted within Europe and outside Europe – are used each year. This amount is expected to grow by around one quarter by the year 2020.
  • From 2005 to 2020, the amount of municipal waste in the EU is expected to grow also by a quarter. Even though the waste is increasingly recycled and less is placed in landfills, the overall growth in waste amounts still poses a major challenge.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions in Europe fell by about 5 % between 1990 and 2004. However, the EU has pointed to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 50 % by the middle of the 21st century in order to limit the temperature increase to a maximum of 2 °C.
  • And a final example. Use of chemicals in production processes in for example China cause severe health problems for the workers and can also have negative health effects for the users of the products in Europe. Many of those users are our children.

In the EU, we have experienced considerable changes in consumption patterns over the last years: European citizens live in ever larger dwellings, drive more kilometres by car, fly more kilometres by plane and consume more processed food. However, at the same time, many products and services have become more and more energy efficient. But more and more cars, TV sets, dishwashers and washing machines are in use, and the result is that the total energy consumption from their use is rising.

Many other countries face similar or even much larger challenges, for example the Eastern and South Eastern European Countries, Central Asia and Caucasus. Together with UNEP we have assessed production and consumption in these countries in order to discuss the challenges with the Environment Ministers of the Pan-European Region in Belgrade in two weeks.

What we can learn from these observations is that there is an urgent need for a substantial reduction of pressures on the environment and that this reduction of pressures can only be brought about with a substantial redesign of production as well as consumption patterns.

Finally, I would like to consider: How to find the pathways to make the vision come true.

Redesigning consumption and production is a challenge that requires all actors to take responsibility and make it happen. Many large companies have realised that sustainable production often is even a win-win-win situation. It generates more profit, helps resource security and is better for the environment. Also, consumers across Europe are increasingly showing their willingness to move towards more sustainable consumption, but they need the right information and the right price signals. One example of how to look at this is the Intervention Diamond, developed by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK. Made up of four action areas - the four E’s - enable, engage, exemplify, and encourage, it can be used to catalyse an integrated approach which can evolve as attitudes and behaviours change over time.

In the EEA, we have used environmental accounts to analyse for some European countries, which of our activities in Europe cause the majority of environmental pressures in terms of emissions to air and material use.

From a production perspective, these economic sectors are electricity, gas and water supply; transport services; and agriculture. From a consumption perspective, our study shows that the consumption of food and drink, private transport and housing is responsible for about 65% of material use and 70% of global warming potential over their whole life-cycle.

Thus, if we want to be serious about any future vision of sustainability, we will have to take action in these areas.

Let me now turn briefly to the role of public authorities, in particular at the EU and national level.

The European Commission’s initiative to combine the consultation on the action plan on sustainable consumption and production with that on sustainable industrial policy is a crucial step forward. What is now needed from those action plans is a framework that sets the overall frame and establishes the pathways to meet the vision. These pathways will include the use of both legal instruments and information. But we also have to give the right price signals to producers and consumers. This is why a green tax reform is necessary, one that gradually shifts away taxes from labour and investments towards taxes on pollution and the inefficient use of materials and energy.

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 – the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) – is at best inaccurate. At worst it is misleading. For example, a natural disaster can lead to a higher GDP because the production needed to rebuild society will count positively in GDP terms. But the harm done, both in terms of loss of human lives, buildings and infrastructure and a destroyed natural environment does not reduce GDP.

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.

Let me end by reminding everyone of why this conference is so important. First, we have been given the opportunity to make recommendations on the EU Action Plan on Sustainable Consumption and Production. Second, by combining the consultation on the two action plans, we can also make recommendations for the Action Plan on Sustainable Industrial Policies. Thirdly, we can also provide inputs and recommendations for action at the national and regional level and for the global Marrakech process.

In order to make recommendations for what to include in action plans, it is important to know what is already happening in the countries. To this end, the EEA and its Topic Centre on Resources and Waste Management have prepared a comparative review of selected cases of national sustainable consumption and production strategies. It shows that much is happening. For example, all of the countries analysed are planning to enhance eco-efficiency and to give economic incentives for steering consumption and production in a more sustainable direction. Most are also taking action to greener products and better consumer information. But more is definitely needed, especially in terms of awareness raising amongst the population and providing clearer signals of why action is necessary. It is not appropriate to think only of regulating people, but rather to motivate people by ensuring that changes in their behaviours will result in a particular set of outcomes. Some would go further and say that deeper more systemic changes are needed in our diets and lifestyles.

I hope that we can use the opportunity of this conference to discuss these matters in more depth, provide advice and guidance on how to take action in countries, at the EU level and globally and find the pathways to make the vision come true.

Thank you for your attention.


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