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Artikel i 'The Parliament Magazine' Vol. 4 No. 118

24. april 2000 · Kl. 15:19 Nyhed

If the EU economy is to continue to grow, then radical and sustained measures to reduce use of material inputs are imperative, argue Jacob Sørensen and Kim Ejlertsen.

Throughout the last century, the Western world experienced a continuous intensification in the exploitation of capital and labour. Simultaneously the consumption of materials increased in a major way. The EU has participated vigorously in this development, but now Friends of the Earth call for a strategic move to reduce resource use in production in the Community. The intensification of the exploitation of labour has been possible as a result of a purposeful policy, and it is equally possible to reduce the consumption of raw materials by 90 per cent within 30-50 years.

Although energy consumption in the industrialised countries seems responsible for climate changes which threaten the ecological – and economic – basis of our existence, it is extremely difficult to achieve an absolute reduction in CO2 emissions. Not only CO2 but also cadmium, PAHs, NOx, dioxins and other substances are emitted in much higher than natural rates, resulting in much higher than ‘natural’ environmental concentrations. In this way our high consumption threatens to destabilise the eco-sphere.

Present emission levels and concentrations of pollutants as well as effects linked to the extraction of raw materials lead to unacceptable environmental problems and irreversible effects on nature. The extraction of metals and other non-renewables, as well as CO2 emissions, must, as many indications show, be halved globally within the next 30-50 years, in order to prevent overexploitation and dangerous climate changes. In other words we must stay within the Earth's carrying capacity.

Today more than half of the world's population lives in countries which have a great impetus to catch up with western lifestyles and many developing countries currently have GDP growth rates above 5 per cent a year. Therefore it is likely they will succeed in achieving present day western lifestyles and consumption levels within the next 30 years. This will lead to an ecological catastrophe. The only acceptable solution to prevent such development is for the West to take the lead, showing how to create welfare with less use of resources. We in the rich countries have the capital and technological capacity to develop and implement new sustainable technologies. Therefore we also have the obligation to adopt progressive and ambitious action plans to reduce our use of raw materials by changing our lifestyle as well as the environmental performance of our economy. But what should be the target?

It would not be fair to make every nation halve present resource use and pollution, such as the US and India having to reduce present CO2 emissions from respectively 20 and 1 to 10 and 0.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita. A global equity principle needs to be the basis of setting targets. Today the average world citizen is responsible for a little over 4 tonnes of CO2 emissions. As mentioned above, this figure need to be halved within the next 30 years. Today a typical western economy emits 10-12 tonnes of CO2 per capita. Taking into account UN projections of population growth a global fair share, or "an environmental space per capita" is in the range 1.1-1.7 tonnes. Therefore a reduction in the range of 90 per cent, or by a factor of 10, is needed. It can be argued that the same reduction range should apply to a number of non-renewables, such as metals.

While the EU's economic structure permanently produces a more intensive use of capital and labour, a proportional intensification of the use of materials has not taken place. Friends of the Earth therefore call on European politicians to adopt strategies for de-materialisation (providing the same service with at least 10 times less use of resources) in all economic sectors within the next 30 years.

There are strong indications that a factor 10 reduction of EU production is feasible. Take for instance a loudspeaker - anyone who has bought a loudspeaker within recent years has been surprised by the development in size and quality. Now a microspeaker performs better than a mega-brick did 15 years ago. Can we for instance triple the lifespan, reduce weight by 40 per cent and use 75 per cent reused or recycled parts, then we will have achieved a 90 per cent reduction of input for a given unit of loudspeaker service.

The EU’s Environmental Action Programmes aim to achieve more welfare from less nature via eco-efficiency targets, demand side management, waste reduction measures and so on. Moreover, in the Commission's White Paper on Growth, Competitivenes, and Employment it is made an environmental and economic imperative to meet needs with less use of natural and man-made resources, but with more use of people.

Some member states refer to overall resource use targets, like Germany (increasing raw materials productivity 2.5-fold by 2020 compared to 1990) and Austria and Sweden (Factor 10), but there has been little done as yet to implement such targets at the level of economic sectors. At EU level, there are examples of absolute reductions in some environmental indicators, for instance reductions in SO2 emissions from the energy and industry sector, as well as reductions in NOx emissions from the energy and transport sector. A relative delinking of CH4, CO2 and waste from economic growth is also evident. CH4 and CO2 emissions have been nearly constant and the production of waste has increased by 10 per cent while GDP has increased by more than 20 per cent during the nineties. In general, these are positive developments, but without taking the most important obstacle for sustainable development into account – the profile of present economic growth.

The car is a good example, showing that the eco-efficiency of industry has been eaten up by increased consumption. Now 75 per cent of the weight of cars in the EU is recycled and the technical efficiency of the car is improving by 1 to 1.5 per cent a year. However technical efficiency is outstripped by growth in travel (2 to 2.5 per cent a year) and the upgrading of vehicle power (0.5 per cent a year).

The same could be claimed to be true in the wider economy. Assuming that the consumption of services tracks the economy, average annual economic growth of only 1.5 per cent in the EU means that we would have to 'dematerialise' production by a factor of 21 within 50 years to reach a total reduction of resource use of 90 per cent. Is this possible? In a newly published work ‘Environmental Outlook,’ the OECD discusses the environment and the future. It is argued that there has been a certain delinkage between economic growth and pollution growth and pressure on nature, the environment and health, but that it is not sufficient to counterbalance the added pressure from economic growth. We agree and call for strategies that not only aim for factor 10 but also for 'de-materialisation' targets that compensate for growth in GDP.

Therefore there is a need for not only to focus on GDP as a target but, first and foremost, on the activities which are initiated in each economy. It is necessary to redirect the activities in the different economical sectors to only take in activities we know lead towards sustainable societies. The energy sector must develop renewable technologies at the expense of activities based on fossil fuels and uranium. The new activities and structural changes which are demanded will presumably result in increase of traditional GDP measures, but this should not be decisive. The activities, and not the indicator, must be the most important.

In order to have a factor 10 reduction within the next generation, use of all available incentives will be required. Two of the most promising tools are increased reuse and increased product lifetime. Common EU market rules will enhance such developments. What we need are minimum life span values for all categories of product components and for demands for all product components to be designed, so that they can be directly reused in the same type of product or in other products.

Every product must be designed in such a way that, when it has served its time, it can be taken apart and all components with excess lifetime can be used directly in other products or recycled for other purposes. Increased reuse of components is closely linked to the lifetime of major products as well as to the material input per unit service. Increased reuse and longer product lifetime are therefore very important issues, which require common rules in order to meet a factor 10 goal.

Direct reuse must obviously be preferred to recycling. The reason is that recycling encompasses processes that include a transformation of the substances of the component or the product. Such transformation procedures will always create pollution and energy consumption.

A marked increase in reuse (and recycling) in the EU requires much more information concerning each product. One possibility might be to impose on the producer an obligation to provide information about every product, detailing the materials used, including the ecological burden, environmentally harmful substances and energy consumption and emissions. This information should be available via product data-sheets and posted on the internet. As an important secondary gain, the material flows in society could then be estimated. An improvement in information will be laborious in the beginning, but in the long run it will create a win-win situation, not least because reuse (and recycling) will be much easier to practice.

Jacob Sørensen and Kim Ejlertsen write from the Sustainability Group of NOAH, Friends of the Earth, Denmark

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