EEA boss: Juncker plan and Energy Union should drive circular economy

EU policymakers must ensure that the Juncker investment plan and Energy Union leverages the circular economy, boosts decarbonisation, and enhances the environment, Hans Bruyninckx told EurActiv in an interview.

Professor Bruyninckx is executive director of the European Environment Agency. He spoke to EurActiv’s deputy news editor James Crisp. The EEA today (3 March) published its European Environment State and Outlook report, which will inform EU green policy for the next five years.

You’ve said that the prevailing model of economic development can’t be sustained. What do you mean by that and what does it mean in practice?

If you accept the notion that we live on a limited planet, it is clear that our current levels of energy and resource use are unsustainable. In light of the fact that there are a couple of billion people still struggling with poverty and trying to achieve a decent quality of life, the current model which is spreading across the world, is unsustainable in its most fundamental elements. The technologies used are largely not adapted to life on a planet with finite resources, the financing model is not suitable – we are using too much energy and too many resources.

Do you mean the free market model?

I think it goes beyond that. The question goes beyond the markets and right to the essence of framing a future for humanity on a finite planet. It is a real paradigm shift. The real challenge of the 21st century is to embrace the fact that we do live on a finite planet.  We will have to fundamentally rethink how we live on this planet with nine to ten billion people, that all have an equal right to a decent life. It is quite clear that we cannot continue in our linear model of getting resources out of the ground and in the end, throwing them away. We will have to rethink the way in which we are altering the atmosphere, because it has a huge impact on our capacity to deal with agriculture and with human health.

The report says we need to move away from GDP as the unique measure of success. Does that also mean we need to abandon our obsession with growth?

If you take the agenda for 2050 [the EU’s 2050 vision is of “living well within the limits of the planet”] seriously, we should be able to measure things along the following lines; this country’s GDP grew by 2.5%, its natural capital decreased by 1.8% and the health of the population moved in this or that direction. For the moment we cannot do that.

The European Environment Agency’s ambition as a knowledge institution is to help provide policymakers and society as a whole with a much more complete dashboard of indicators to allow us to make the types of decisions we need to make about our future.

Do you think that the Energy Union, or the Juncker Investment Plan, do enough to break away from the outmoded model of economic development you’ve described?

We need to be very careful in Europe when we invest, particularly with public money – and the Juncker plan is a blend of private and public money – that it can be used as leverage for decarbonisation, ecosystem quality, circularity of the economy and environmental health.

But the EU’s decision-makers, at all levels, lack the tools and the framework to make these decisions in a consistent way, so I think we have a long way to go there.

Are you concerned that the Circular Economy package has been withdrawn by the European Commission? (The Commission says it will retable a more ambitious proposal by 2015.)

When a Commissioner and a Commission Vice-President stand up in public and say they are trying to strengthen the legislative packages, I have to believe them. We have done substantial work that illustrates the vital importance of the circular economy and resource efficiency for well-being and competitiveness. And that focussing on these elements contributes to European competitiveness, job creation and economic performance. So we are looking forward to seeing the strengthened packages.

What public energy subsidies need to go?

We should examine subsidy schemes against four yardsticks. Does investment contribute to decarbonisation? Does it contribute to the circularity of the economy by improving resource efficiency? Does it contribute to environmental health? And does it contribute to ecosystem quality and resilience? You have to reflect on whether subsidies are locking us into a carbon system of natural resource use that is unsustainable.

The Energy Union has a focus on innovation in renewables. Campaigners argue that’s a good thing but criticise the plans for not doing more to encourage more renewables capacity in the EU.

That is the whole reason behind the network approach [of Energy Union]. The European dimension of the energy system will be absolutely key to making the energy transition to low carbon generation.

We know that both in terms of production and distribution, there is a huge amount of work that needs to be done. Some countries, like Belgium, are densely populated and do not have the geographical features that exist in Austria, for example, to make it easy to generate energy. But on a European scale, some countries could specialise in constructing the network for the transition of energy, to facilitate the European dimension of this energy transition.

I know there have been a lot of negative reactions to the target of a 27% renewables share of the energy mix by 2030, about the fact that it is not legally binding. But if this can be embedded in a strong European approach to the energy transition, including infrastructure and production, I think it is absolutely essential, quite frankly. But we would need a governance structure with teeth.

Is there too much focus on gas in the Energy Union plans? It is clear that gas is regarded as a transition source of energy. Does the EEA agree?

No, we don’t. We don’t do a lot of work on gas, but clearly if you want to decarbonise your energy supply, switching to gas is not the right way to go.

Has the argument that environmental measures are a compliment, not an alternative, to the recovery from the crisis been won?

Absolutely, yes. Since 2008, the sector in Europe that has been growing the fastest in terms of jobs, investment, patents and competitiveness, has focused on energy efficiency, resource efficiency, eco-technologies, and eco-innovation. It grew from about 2.8 million to 4.1 million jobs in Europe during the crisis.

Free trade agreements can have an environmental impact. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would mean our markets have to open to American oranges, for example.

You have to get the prices right to reflect the environmental realities [of shipping oranges]. The EEA is not a trade group, but in general we believe that it is essential to take environmental issues into account in trade agreements, in order to avoid unsustainable practices.

According to your predictions, we are on track to miss our 2030 climate and energy targets. What sort of policy initiatives would you like to see?

Policy has to be stepped up a gear. Whatever changes we make to aim at our 2030 targets, we should keep 2050 in mind, or else we run the risk of focussing entirely on efficiency gains in the current energy systems, and not opening up the new systemic approaches we will need by 2050. And this goes right across the board, it’s about food and agriculture, transport and mobility, energy, urban systems etc.

How important is it that we meet the 2030 targets?

It is absolutely essential, not only with regards to the environmental impact of the EU, but also its credibility on the international stage.

What are your expectations for the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris this December?

It is quite clear that the ambition for the Paris conference, where all the countries of the world, aim to come to an agreement on mitigating climate change and keeping global temperature rises below 2 degrees, is essential. Progress was made in Lima, but credible pathways towards reaching the goals must be indicated.

Was the 2 degrees target chosen because it is politically achievable, or because it will keep the climate stable in its current state?

It comes from solid knowledge from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC does not indicate that a 2 degree increase will not lead to any significant changes or costs, or will not demand serious adaptation measures, but that they will be within reasonable boundaries.

Your definition of reasonable may change depending on where you are from. If you look at the Mediterranean, it is one of the most vulnerable areas in the world to temperature increases and climate change, and it is an incredibly important part of Europe’s social and economic reality.

Your report predicts up to 160,000 deaths from heatwaves in southern Europe, as a result of climate change. That should concentrate minds, shouldn’t it?

It should, yes. You would expect so!

>> Read: Commission under pressure after environment report


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