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EEA Signals 2014 – Well-being and the environment

Transition towards a green economy

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Article Published 02 Jun 2014 Last modified 05 Nov 2021
4 min read
Photo: © Gülcin Karadeniz
Our quality of life, health and jobs all depend on the environment. However, the way and the rate we are using up natural resources today risk undermining our well-being along with nature’s ability to provide for us. We need to fundamentally transform the way we produce, consume and live. We need to green our economy and the transition needs to start today.

Our planet has limited resources and today, we are extracting and using more resources than the planet can sustainably deliver. Natural resources fuel our production and consumption, and create wealth and jobs, contributing to our quality of life and well-being.

Everything around us comes from nature. In one form or another, our homes, cars, bicycles, food, clothes and energy were and are part of the environment. We extract raw materials, process them and build our communities. This connection with and dependence on the environment have always been essential to our existence.

But there is a downside to our level of resource consumption. We are actually exerting so much pressure on the environment that we risk weakening its capacity to provide for us in the future.

Our activities are releasing pollutants into our atmosphere and plastics into our oceans. Our ecosystems are changing faster than before, at unnatural rates. Increased trade introduces new species that can invade entire ecosystems. Climate change is altering precipitation patterns. Yields become less reliable, causing hikes in food prices. We can clearly see that some regions and countries are more vulnerable. However, some environmental impacts, like air pollution, affect everyone, albeit at varying degrees.

Future pressures urge us to take action today

Our current consumption and production are already unsustainable with more than 7 billion of us across the planet, and the population is projected to increase to around 9 billion by mid-century, with billions still in poverty, aspiring a higher standard of living.

Our resource use degrades and decreases the natural capital that will be available to sustain the well-being of future generations. At the very least, this will mean less land and less freshwater per person will be available to produce the food we will need.

To ensure our quality of life and long-term well-being, we need to green our economy and the transition needs to start today. But how can we achieve this? How do we transform our economy into one that preserves the environment while ensuring our quality of life?

Boosting Europe’s resource efficiency

To start with, our economy has to become more resource efficient. We will effectively need to get more out of less. We need to decrease the amount of resources we extract and use.

While it is important to reduce the flow of new materials into the production process and make production processes more efficient, this is only one part of the story. We also need to reduce the material loss and waste generated throughout production and consumption.

And it is possible to transform our economy, but this requires action and commitment over several decades. Europe has achieved significant gains in increasing its resource efficiency, but much more needs to be done.

Various EU strategies and legislation, such as Europe 2020, the Flagship initiative for a Resource-Efficient Europe, the Waste Framework Directive or the 7th Environment Action Programme, are already in place and try to instil sustainability in key economic activities in a long-term transition perspective.

Full implementation of such policies would offer multiple benefits. Fewer resources would be used per output, and this would help protect and preserve the environment. At the same time, the economy would benefit from fundamental innovation and higher competitiveness for European companies.

Street market

(c) Gülcin Karadeniz

Reducing waste

Let’s take the example of food waste. Between 30 % and 50 % of the food worldwide is estimated to end up as waste. In the EU alone, we waste almost 90 million tonnes of food annually, corresponding to almost 180 kg per person.

Food is wasted at all the stages of the production and consumption chain. For every food item not consumed, we are wasting the energy, the water, the labour, and the land used in its production. Greenhouse gases and fertilisers released into nature contribute to environmental degradation.

Could we change the food system to prevent food waste in a way that consumers, supermarkets and food producers all worked towards producing, selling and buying only what will be eaten?

Could we actually use end-of-life products — ‘leftovers’ of one production process — as inputs into another production process? Could we create a ‘circular economy’ that generated as little loss as possible? Better management of our municipal waste shows that the potential gains, both in economic and environmental terms, are immense.

Greening an entire economy — European and ultimately global — is an immense task. It involves integrating sustainable resource use into every aspect of our lives.

Eco-innovation projects, renewables, and research in general all play a crucial role in designing better products and processes and reducing waste. The business community in collaboration with public authorities and civil society could implement sustainable solutions until they become the ‘mainstream’. For example, can we create a system where we ‘rent’ or ‘borrow’ products, such as tools and cars, instead of owning them, where we would need fewer of those products to meet our needs.

We, the consumers…

We need to make our economy more resource efficient and reduce the amount of waste — or loss — it generates. The field of economics offers us some tools for estimating costs and damages and some suggestions as to how we can include environmental concerns in our economic decisions. But we also need more innovation, more research and certainly a long-term perspective.

As consumers, we all have a role to play in supporting the transition towards green economy. Our consumer behaviour is heavily influenced by our peers and social context, our impulses and the choices made available to us. Throughout history, consumption patterns have constantly evolved. We can use this flexibility to our advantage, and can steer the course towards sustainability.

Regardless of our income levels and where we live in the world, our health and well-being depend on the environment. We all have a stake in its well-being.

The 2014 edition of Signals takes a closer look at these issues.

Hans Bruyninckx

Hans Bruyninckx
Executive Director


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