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Briefing

Resource nexus and the European Green Deal

Briefing Published 17 Mar 2022 Last modified 12 Apr 2022
23 min read
Photo: © Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Resource nexus assessments analyse the direct and indirect interconnections between different natural resources, their management, use and governance, as well as the synergies and trade-offs that can be generated through policy interventions. By building on the insights provided by a growing body of knowledge and selected case studies, this briefing reflects on the role of the resource nexus in supporting policy coherence and integration in the context of the European Green Deal.

Key messages

  • Managing natural resources has historically focused on individual resources and value chain-based approaches. While these provide valuable insights, wider systems thinking is needed to address the complex interactions between different natural resources. For example, the links between food, energy and water resources point to the need for such a systems approach.
  • The resource nexus concept fulfils this need, as it specifically looks at resource interlinkages. Applying it to policy interventions generates important information about synergies and trade-offs across several resource-related goals as a contribution to more effective management strategies.
  • The findings of three case studies on organic farming, advanced biofuels and electric vehicles point to the usefulness of the approach for identifying knowledge gaps, imbalances in policy focus, potential ‘winners and losers’, and as a basis for informed discussions.
  • Resource nexus assessments add to the systemic understanding of sustainability challenges and responses. Combined with other tools and frameworks, e.g. foresight and governance approaches, they could effectively support the European Green Deal’s ambitions of strengthening policy coherence and integration.

Sustainable management of natural resources: from siloed thinking to nexus approaches

Nature, and the resources it provides, sustains our societies. Resources such as energy, water, food, land, and materials underpin the functioning of the systems of production and consumption (see Figure 1) that support our physiological needs and overall well-being.

Figure 1. The European Green Deal in relation to the nexus between natural resources and to the nexus between systems of production and consumption.

 

Source: EEA.

Since the 1950s, the demand for natural resources associated with a growing human population, economic activity and changing lifestyles has reached an unprecedented high level (Steffen et al., 2011, 2015). This is putting tremendous pressure on the Earth’s life-support systems through climate change, biodiversity loss, changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere, oceans and soil, etc. (IPCC, 2018, 2021; IPBES, 2019; IRP, 2019; UNEP, 2019). Projections suggest that the situation could worsen significantly in future, through a possible doubling of the global demand for materials by 2060 (IRP, 2019).

Managing natural resources wisely is key ‘to ensure that [sustainable development] meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, as pointed out by the Brundtland Commission in Our common future (UN, 1987). Therefore, natural resources require careful stewardship, protection and conservation so that they are available in sufficient quantities and quality to sustain future generations.

Accordingly, natural resource management and conservation strategies are central to Europe’s environmental sustainability policy framework, which is increasingly shaped by ambitious long-term visions and targets. The European Green Deal explicitly states that it ‘also aims to protect, conserve and enhance the EU’s natural capital, and protect the health and well-being of citizens from environment-related risks and impacts’ (EC, 2019a).

In spite of the clear ambitions, natural resources have historically been governed in separate resource categories, often by adopting a supply chain perspective encompassing production and consumption aspects (Bleischwitz et al., 2018). This approach has clearly been insufficient to deal with the systemic nature of the challenges faced and to ensure adequate management and protection.

The resource nexus concept

The concept of the ‘resource nexus’ was introduced in resource management to account for key interdependencies among resources and their use (Bleischwitz et al., 2018). Since 2011, when it was first introduced (Hoff, 2011), the concept has gained prominence in the international research community and among international organisations operating at the science-policy interface (e.g. FAO, 2014; UNEP, 2017; Adamovic et al., 2019; UNU-Flores, 2021; IPBES, 2021). A cluster of Horizon 2020 projects [1] focusing on nexus issues has also been established.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines the resource nexus as a ‘conceptual approach to better understand and systematically analyse the interactions between the natural environment and human activities, and to work towards a more coordinated management and use of natural resources across sectors and scales’ (FAO, 2014).

While early applications focused on exploring the interlinkages between water, energy and food, further developments embraced other natural resources, including land, materials, waste and ecosystems, and other dimensions such as climate and health. Collating these applications results in a complex web of direct and indirect interactions, which define the ‘nexus’ among the resources. Understanding this network of interactions provides important information, as a given intervention might have different effects across resources — positive or negative — depending on the way they interact. For example, demand for food can be met through various agricultural practices that may require different levels of land, energy, water and other inputs. The same is true for demands on other resources.

In this briefing, a six-node approach is adopted, covering water, energy, food, land, materials and ecosystem services (Figure 1).

Added value for policy coherence

The resource nexus can be applied as an integrated approach to policymaking (Hogeboom et al., 2021). Policy interventions associated with one or more natural resources can be less effective, or even counterproductive, if these interactions are not considered. Synergies and trade-offs may be generated across different natural resources and across policy goals, including Sustainable Development Goals (Weitz et al., 2014, 2019; Bleischwitz et al., 2018; Liu et al., 2018). Being aware of these interlinkages is therefore crucial for ensuring policy coherence (Albrecht et al 2018; Adamovic et al., 2019; EEA, 2019).

For this reason, the European Commission’s Environmental Implementation Review (EC, 2019b) proposes adopting a nexus approach for ‘examining issues systematically and in advance’ and supporting sectoral integration across scales. Similar calls have been made in The European environment — state and outlook 2020(EEA, 2019) and by research projects (MAGIC Consortium, 2020; SIM4NEXUS, 2020).

Applying the resource nexus to selected policy areas under the European Green Deal

The European Green Deal aims to 'transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use’ (EC, 2019a). This vision is implemented by a number of strategies, action plans and related legislation aiming to accelerate multiple transitions in a coordinated and systemic fashion. This is illustrated by initiatives such as the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) (EC, 2020a), which aims to tackle environmental, climate and social challenges simultaneously. However, achieving the European Green Deal’s deep and transformative ambitions is likely to require that synergies and trade-offs are analysed systematically in order to ensure policy coherence.

This section uses case studies on organic farming, advanced biofuels and electric vehicles to illustrate the type of knowledge that could be generated by applying the resource nexus approach to specific policy areas at the core of the European Green Deal. A selection of the key synergies and trade-offs identified in each case study is presented Table 1. Figure 2 shows the interlinkages for the organic farming case study. Further information on the case studies can be found in the background report underpinning this briefing.

Organic farming

The European Green Deal aims to increase organic farmland in the EU from 8.5% today to 25% in 2030. In the scientific literature, organic farming is often presented as an opportunity to ease environmental pressures, as the use of synthetic fertilisers is not permitted on organic farmland and the range of antibiotics and chemical pesticides is restricted (EC, 2021a). An overview of the synergies and trade-offs for the case of organic farming is presented in Figure 2.

Several synergies are associated with the increase in organic agriculture. Organically farmed land has on average 30% more biodiversity than conventionally farmed land (EC, 2021a), with advantages for above- and below-ground biodiversity (Tuck et al., 2014; IPBES, 2019). Soil fertility is higher, which can be positive for food production in the long term (Seufert and Ramankutty, 2017), and soil erosion may be reduced and its water-holding capacity increased (EEA 2020a; Seufert and Ramankutty, 2017). Furthermore, organic farming reduces water pollution, as the use of pesticides and antimicrobials is reduced (WWAP 2015; EEA 2020a), which is also beneficial for aquatic biodiversity. Avoiding synthetic nitrogen fertilisers also helps to reduce energy use, as fertiliser production is energy intensive (Kyriakou et al., 2020).

The main trade-off identified is a potential increase in the demand for land in the short term. This is associated with lower yields per hectare, a consequence of not using synthetic fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, although other ways of managing pests may reduce the scale of the problem. Moreover, more water and energy will be required to farm larger areas, whether in Europe or elsewhere (de Ponti et al., 2012; Seufert and Ramankutty, 2017; EEA 2020a). This could lead to a ‘virtual’ import of land and/or the replacement of natural ecosystems by farmland. However, this trade-off could be mitigated if there were shifts in diet and reductions in food waste (Willet et al., 2019).

In the long term, the demand for additional land is mitigated by increases in soil fertility and consequently gradually increasing agricultural yields. While aimed primarily at reducing pressures on ecosystems and reducing biodiversity loss, organic agriculture also contributes synergistically to achieving other goals, such as providing healthy food and nutrient recycling. The overall effects on energy and water demand and on GHG emissions are unclear and context specific. Although extensive practices reduce energy demand and emissions per hectare, lower yields and longer rearing times (in animal husbandry) are likely to increase emissions per kilograms of food product (Skinner et al. 2014; Smith et al., 2019; Pieper et al., 2020).

Advanced biofuels

Concerns around the sustainability of bioenergy have underlined the importance of anticipating the potential consequences of well-intentioned policies. Past expansion of bioenergy production has led to unintended negative effects such as indirect land use change, deforestation, and diversion of food crops to energy production (Ripa et al., 2021), which resulted in the phasing out of first-generation biofuels within the current EU policy framework. As a response, ‘advanced biofuels, based on the transformation of non-food plants and organic wastes, have been put forward as an alternative’ (Ripa et al., 2021, p.1).

The European Green Deal has put the EU on a path towards climate neutrality by 2050 (EPRS, 2021). As part of that effort, higher shares of renewable energy sources in the overall energy mix have been proposed, alongside measures for the deployment of renewables across all sectors (EC, 2021d). In particular, biofuels are expected to ‘have an important role to play, notably in hard-to-decarbonise transport modes, such as aviation or maritime’ (EC, 2020e). The proposed regulations on sustainable air transport (EC, 2021e) and on low-carbon maritime transport (EC, 2021f) point to a dramatic increase in the use of advanced biofuels by 2050. This raises important questions regarding whether advanced biofuels produced at the scale foreseen in 2050 can avoid the negative consequences seen with first-generation biofuels. For example, a concern is that the demand for biomass could easily exceed sustainable levels of supply, requiring clear priorities to be set for where biomass is to be used (ETC, 2021).

The recast Renewable Energy Directive (RED II; EU, 2018) introduced sustainability and GHG emissions-saving criteria that bioliquids must comply with to count towards the overall target of 14% of renewable energy consumed in transport by 2030, as well as an accounting approach aimed at reducing the risk of indirect land use change. The recent proposal for amending the RED II (EC, 2021g) further strengthens the EU bioenergy sustainability criteria, particularly in relation to forest biomass use and to the cascading principles governing it.

Overall, although the production of lignocellulosic energy crops on marginal land could meet some of the future bioenergy demand, help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and potentially contribute to improve biodiversity on marginal land [2] (ETC, 2021). On the other hand, the deployment of advanced biofuels could have significant impacts on other resources, including water demand and soil loss (Vera et al., 2017), with overall benefits and limitations being largely context specific.

Electric vehicles

Electric vehicles (EVs) are presented by the European Green Deal and the sustainable and smart mobility strategy (EU, 2018) as a ‘zero-emission’ solution, alongside other alternative drive technologies. EVs are likely to make up the bulk of reduced-emission vehicles in the future because of their high efficiency compared with other alternatives (hydrogen and synthetic fuels). The case study of EVs identifies significant synergies and trade-offs. The main ones are the reduced demand for fossil fuels and GHG emissions [3] and health benefits due to reduced air pollution in urban areas.

Important trade-offs are due to a substantially higher demand for raw materials (minerals and metals) as ‘electric cars, on average, require six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car’ (IEA, 2021, p. 6) mostly due to battery production (BMU, 2021;). The subsequent generation of significant amounts of waste arising from batteries and end-of-life energy infrastructure (EEA, 2018; EEA, 2021a) points to both challenges and opportunities. It creates both technical and logistical challenges but also significant opportunities for recycling metals and other valuable resources back into the production system (EEA, 2021a). Demand for land is also potentially increased to accommodate the renewable energy infrastructure necessary to produce and supply electricity (Orsi, 2021).

EVs are likely to have lower health impacts due to air pollution than combustion vehicles (EEA, 2018; BMU, 2021) because of EVs’ zero exhaust emissions, e.g. nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM). However, EVs still emit PM locally from road, tyre and brake wear, as all motor vehicles do (EEA, 2018). From a life cycle perspective, emissions of particulate matter associated with manufacturing of EVs may be higher than those for internal combustion vehicles, as battery production is associated with high particulate matter emissions (BMU, 2021). However, batteries are often manufactured outside densely populated areas and exposure to pollutants may be significantly lower (BMU, 2021).

While beyond the scope of resource nexus analysis, it is also important to consider that mining of raw materials for EVs is often associated with hazardous working conditions, child labour and negative impacts on miners’ health (Mancini et al., 2020).

Table 1. Potential synergies and trade-offs associated with selected policy interventions (a)

Case study

Key policy objective

Potential synergies across resources (including health and climate considerations)

Potential trade-offs across resources (including health and climate considerations)

1. Organic farming

Upscale organic agriculture in Europe (b)

  • Enhanced biodiversity and related ecosystem services
  • Reduced demand for synthetic fertilisers and associated energy demand
  • Reduced soil loss/erosion and increased water-holding capacity
  • Increased cycling of nutrients
  • Lower chemical residue levels in organic produce
  • Short-term increase in the demand for land, if not accompanied by dietary change and waste reduction
  • Increase in demand for energy and water due to changes in agricultural practices
  • Bio-pesticides used in organic farming can still harm soil and aquatic organisms and reduce the provision of ecosystem services

2. Advanced biofuels

Decarbonise transport (c)

  • Reduced demand for fossil fuels and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (d)
  • Enhanced biodiversity and related ecosystem services if produced according to agro-forestry principles on degraded land
  • Direct and indirect land use change and potential competition with biomass feedstocks
  • Demand for water, risk of soil erosion and depletion of carbon stocks
  • Potential reduction of (semi-) natural ecosystems and their services in marginal land
  • Risks of unsustainable sourcing from outside the EU

3. Electric vehicles (EVs)

Uptake of EVs as part of the ‘zero-emission’ vehicles target (e)

  • Reduced demand for fossil fuels and lower GHG emissions (f)
  • Increased health benefits due to reduced air pollution in urban areas
  • Increased demand for raw materials (critical and non-critical) following increased demand for batteries and infrastructure
  • Potential risk of unsustainable sourcing beyond EU boundaries; impacts on water, ecosystems and their services associated with mining
  • Increased demand for land associated with energy infrastructure
  • Higher emissions of particulate matter associated with the production of batteries

Notes:
(a) See the background report for the full list of potential synergies and trade-offs.
(b) The farm to fork strategy (EC, 2020b) aims for 25% of total farmland to be organically farmed by 2030.
(c) Advanced biofuels (i.e. biofuels produced from feedstocks listed in Annex IX of the Renewable Energy Directive — recast (RED II; EU, 2018)) are required to be at least 0.2% in 2022, at least 1% in 2025 and at least 3.5% in 2030 of final consumption of energy in the transport sector.
(d) Emissions of GHGs due to land use changes vary significantly by the type of biomass and adherence to sustainability criteria. The RED II (EU, 2018) defines a series of sustainability and GHG emission criteria that bioliquids used in transport must comply with.
(e) The sustainable and smart mobility strategy aims to have at least 30 million zero-emission vehicles in operation on EU roads by 2030 (EC, 2020c).
(f) On average, based on the current EU energy mix. The situation can be very different from country to country (see EEA, 2018).


Figure 2. Potential synergies and trade-offs associated with increasing organic farming illustrated for the ‘Food-Land-Ecosystem services’ nexus

Source: EEA.

 

Several points can be drawn from the three case studies.

Firstly, knowledge gaps were found at various stages of policy development, in particular policy design and impact assessment. For example, the case study on (advanced) biofuels highlighted that the impacts associated with the decarbonisation of marine transport and aviation were not considered together in impact assessment studies. Consequently, the cumulative effects of policy interventions targeting a large-scale expansion of bioenergy has unexplored implications for aspects such as land use, ecosystem services, food production and other resources.

Secondly, adopting a resource nexus lens could support the identification of potential imbalances associated with policy interventions. All three case studies are on policy areas that focus on stimulating change in production practices and technologies, rather than on creating enabling conditions to reduce demand. As illustrated in the organic farming case study, the trade-offs associated with this production practice (e.g. higher land demand) could be countered if dietary change and food waste were effectively addressed. This highlights how crucial demand side management is and supports calls for strengthening related policies.

Thirdly, adopting a nexus approach can help to identify possible winners and losers among those affected by policy interventions. Resource-related implications will affect stakeholders disproportionally (see EEA, 2021b) and might pose serious challenges if appropriate processes and measures are not put in place.

What could this mean for the European Green Deal?

‘All EU actions and policies will have to contribute to the European Green Deal objectives. The challenges are complex and interlinked. The policy response must be bold and comprehensive and seek to maximise benefits for health, quality of life, resilience and competitiveness. It will require intense coordination to exploit the available synergies across all policy areas’ (EC, 2019a).

Policy interventions are powerful drivers of change. At the heart of the European Green Deal lies the unprecedented ambition to reconfigure production and consumption systems such as energy, food, mobility and the built environment towards sustainability. Given their shared reliance on natural resources (see Figure 1) and the scale of the changes envisaged, it is likely that policy interventions might generate both synergies and trade-offs across natural resources. The case studies presented are from areas where coherence should be pursued, but they are far from being the only examples relevant to the European Green Deal.

While the European Green Deal provides a strong strategic foundation to guide and align policy action, current knowledge and governance systems are inadequate to deliver transformational policies commensurate with the sustainability challenges (Oliver et al., 2021). A systemic and systematic analysis of such mechanisms can help to prevent shifting the burden to other resources and geographical areas (EEA, 2019) and costly misdirected investments ‘at a time when public finances are expected to come under increasing stress in coming decades owing to parallel transitions in society’ (EEA, 2020b).

Against this backdrop, the uptake and application of resource nexus thinking to the policy initiatives developed under the European Green Deal could help put the concept of dynamic policy coherence into practice (EC, 2020d). One opportunity would be applying it to the EU policy- and law-making cycle (SIM4NEXUS, 2020): for example during the preparation phase of a new legislative proposal, as part of the roadmap or impact assessment for a new law and policy, or to inform the monitoring and evaluation of existing policies. Including resource nexus-inspired approaches in the European Commission Better Regulation guidelines and toolbox [4] (EC, 2021b,c), could also increase their uptake across impact assessment studies and ensure that the appropriate knowledge base is developed.

Yet, it is important to remember that the resource nexus is just one of the approaches that can help navigate complex transitions towards sustainability. Only by combining multiple framings, perspectives and forms of knowledge with frameworks and tools, such as integrated modelling, foresight studies, and transition governance, can the systemic, understanding of challenges and opportunities be strengthened, thus providing a better knowledge base for supporting EU policy coherence.

Notes

[2] the use of degraded land for agro-forestry that relies on diverse species could improve biodiversity, yet other options like returning the same land to nature could generate higher environmental benefits (ETC, 2021).

[3]On average, based on the current EU energy mix. The situation can be very different from country to country (see EEA, 2018).

[4] The EU better regulation policy and toolbox set out the principles (and the detailed advice) followed by the European Commission when preparing new proposals and when monitoring and evaluating existing legislation.

Aknowledgements

Authors:

Lorenzo Benini, Ana Jesus (EEA)

Aaron Best, Susanne Langsdorf (Ecologic Institute) 

Inputs, feedbacks, and review:

Jock Martin, Anita Pirc‑Velkavrh, Daniel Montalvo, Frank Wugt Larsen, Almut Reichel, Markus Erhard, Stephane Quefelec, Andrus Meiner (EEA)

Louis Meuleman (EEA Scientific Committee)

Eionet National Focal Points and members of the Eionet Foresight Group, and the EU Environmental Knowledge Community

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Identifiers

Briefing no. 24/2021
Title: Resource nexus and the European Green Deal
EN HTML: TH-AM-21-024-EN-Q - ISBN: 978-92-9480-431-0 - ISSN: 2467-3196 - doi: 10.2800/960984
EN PDF: TH-AM-21-024-EN-N - ISBN: 978-92-9480-430-3 - ISSN: 2467-3196 - doi: 10.2800/23787

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The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

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