Sustainable Prosperity for Europe


Eco-efficiency - providing the way out of the crisis?

26 January 2012

The Danish EU Presidency wants to highlight the potential of green growth and eco-efficiency to respond to the challenges facing European society, said Danish Minister for European Affairs Nikolai Wammen

“A green Europe is one of the four main priorities of our presidency. But what is green growth, and why is it important?” Wammen asked, stressing the need to take into account the difficult economic situation in Europe.

“We all agree on the challenge. 24 million Europeans are unemployed. The EU is at risk of recession and many people are having difficulty making ends meet,” the Danish minister said.

He drew attention to the over-exploitation of natural resources and the wider climate crisis facing Europe, predicting massive price rises for commodities like energy, food and water – as well as an 80% increase in demand for raw materials – by 2030.

“Green growth can provide the answer to these challenges. Replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. Manage waste better. Make agriculture more sustainable. Reduce food waste. Use the Internet to help us manage resources more sustainably,” Wammen suggested.

He argued that the transition to a resource-efficient Europe can stimulate growth in the short term too, highlighting smart grids, Web-based infrastructure and electric vehicles as areas with innovation potential.

The EU’s roadmap to a low-carbon future can create millions of new jobs, but with other parts of the world catching up quickly, everyone must work hard if Europe is to maintain its position as a leader in developing green technology, the minister warned.

“Green jobs are the jobs of the future. The EU must decide whether we want them to be created here or in the USA, South Korea or China. That’s what we need to decide – then we need to set up the right framework conditions for green growth in Europe,” Wammen said.

“In Denmark, we believe that the next industrial revolution will be green. Realising the EU’s potential will require everyone to work together – no institutional in-fighting! There’s no time, reason or excuse not to work together on this,” he insisted.

“We need to adopt a lifecycle approach to resource scarcity. Over 40% of the world’s drinking water is lost through distribution systems. Water stress is now reaching Europe,” warned Henry Saint Bris, senior vice-president of strategy at Suez Environnement.

Waste recovery could contribute to achieving 5% of the EU’s renewable energy goals and create over half a million new jobs, Saint Bris explained.

“Suez backs the EU’s climate goals. But Europe isn’t going in the right direction. Energy consumption per head is rising. Eco-efficiency represents a great opportunity for EU businesses, especially SMEs,” he said.

Improving water distribution networks is one area with huge savings potential: by developing different leak detection methods, for example, or by recovering and reusing waste water, he said, citing as examples projects undertaken by Suez in Algiers and Paris.

“We need balanced policies that drive the circular economy. Public-private partnerships can provide an important framework to build up infrastructure and transfer know-how,” Saint Bris said.

 “Disruptive technology can help people to lead more efficient lives. Technology can change the way we do things. The technology is there and has been there a long time,” said Ray Pinto, senior government affairs manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Microsoft.

Pinto cited buying digital music instead of CDs and using Skype for video conferencing among actions that had huge potential to reduce CO2 emissions.

“Technological tools like the digitisation of the economy, cloud computing, broadband and better-performing hardware are transforming people’s lives. You don’t need to consume so many resources anymore,” he said.

“The cloud offers what you need, when you need it. There’s no need for server rooms, cooling systems or water consumption. Data centres are used instead,” he explained.

“It’s exciting to listen to business ideas, because they’re the solution. We need disruptive politics as well as disruptive technology. But that’s a challenge, because politics is always too late,” said Jo Leinen, a German Socialist member of the European Parliament

Leinen said the EU had previously focused its climate change policy on energy production, but in the last 2-3 years had realised the need to look at the wider picture of resource efficiency, raw materials and sustainable production and consumption.

“Let’s delete the word ‘waste’ from our vocabulary. Nature doesn’t produce waste. Goods that we don’t use any more are toxic and thrown away because they have no market value: so let’s create a market value for them,” he argued.

He urged the European Commission to draw up legislation and targets on resource efficiency. “It’s a big challenge and it won’t be done without targets,” he claimed.  

Prices don’t reflect the true cost of manufacturing a product throughout its lifecycle, which is why not enough is being done to green the economy, according to Alan Seatter, deputy director-general of DG Environment at the European Commission.  

Finance will be crucial to fund the transition to a greener economy. “Banks aren’t lending much at the moment, particularly to small companies and start-ups. But we could boost the EU venture capital market, which is currently one tenth of the size of the US market,” Seatter said.

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