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Potočnik: “Green economy, a true opportunity”
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by Dario Cozzi

In your opinion, what is the level of environmental awareness among Europeans?
**Awareness is very high. When Europeans are asked to consider how important the environment is to them on a personal, level, the response is overwhelmingly positive. Our surveys show that 95% of EU citizens believe that protecting the environment is important to them personally, with 58% of these stating that it is very important.
But they don't always know how to translate that concern into tangible action. That's where the hard work needs to be done - making it easier for people to understand how they can help protect the environment they already value.

And to what extent has the recent crisis had repercussions on business/corporate environmental policies?
**Actually it often works the other way round. In times of crisis, people come to realise that the exit needs to a sustainable one, and greener policies can help that happen. So the EU 2020 strategy - Europe’s route out of the current crisis - was careful to stress that what we need is “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth”.
And it is also a time when people realise that ideas like resource efficiency and recycling are not just environmental concepts - they are solid business sense. Next year we will be holding a major conference in Brussels on the green economy, looking at ways to move away from manufacture/consume/dispose to a more circular economy, where waste is an outdated concept. I am sure that business will be heeding that call.

Green economy: is that a mere slogan or does that rest on solid ground? Could green economy be a true opportunity to achieve recovery?
** Millions of jobs depend directly or indirectly on a good quality environment. Overall, some 19 million jobs in Europe are related to the environment which represents some 5% of the total working population. So yes the green economy is more than just an opportunity, it is the path to a genuine recovery - not just for Europe, but for the global economy. This is just common sense. When you look at global trends like population growth and resource use, you realise that the path we are on is unsustainable. We need changes right across society. From energy to transport, construction and greener agriculture, to combating climate change, preserving biodiversity and eliminating economic practices that give people an economic incentive to harm the environment we depend on.

The green economy is the best way of changing this situation...
**Yes. And some of the changes are happening already. Eco-industries in the EU have created more than one million new jobs since 2000, employing more than three million people. Small steps, but valuable ones, and we can build on these strengths. The global market for clean technologies is forecast to double by 2020. Europe is already a world leader in energy efficiency, water and waste management. We provide one third of the global market for clean technologies, and if we can keep that share in a rapidly growing market, it will mean new jobs, new markets and new benefits from early adoption of innovative technologies.

Europe is often taken as a virtuous example insofar as it has adopted some brave environmental policies in recent years (e.g. concerning climate change). Yet, sometimes these were taken as a good excuse to move production to regions of the world that are less strict in that respect. So how can we prevent our virtuous actions from backfiring against ourselves?
**There are a lot of misconceptions about this. The latest study on carbon leakage for instance shows no evidence whatsoever of any company relocating outside the EU because of a price on carbon. The studies we do tend to show several things. First of all, that environmental policy accounts for a relatively low percentage of costs in most sectors - typically less than 2% of production value, much less than people imagine - and secondly that this changes relatively little when you compare the cost of compliance in other places like Australia and the United States.
It is not about being virtuous, it is about being pragmatic. You need to look at the overall cost to society of our actions. Air pollution is a classic example - a cleaner engine might cost a little more to the consumer, but a dirty engine has a huge cost to society, in terms of damage to human health, damage to crops and ecosystems, even damage to cultural monuments. A clean engine avoids all those costs, so it’s cheaper for all in the long run.

Specifically regarding CO2 reductions?
**I sometimes hear the argument that the EU should wait for a global understanding before it implements more ambitious targets. That would be a big mistake. It would seriously hinder the many efforts of the numerous sectors of EU industry that are taking a lead in the global battle against climate change. Markets want predictability and a stable legal regime.
Long investment cycles mean that infrastructure funded in the near term will still be in place in 2030 and beyond. Investors need certainty about objectives and what policies will be in effect.

Speaking about energy, the “20-20-20 climate-energy package”, that is to say a plan with clearcut goals to be achieved at the level of individual member states, seems to be the hot topic. The package also includes environmental aspects, that is a fact; but why something similar has not been done for specific environmental issues?
**In the past 30 years the EU has adopted a range of environmental measures aimed at improving the quality of life for European citizens. There are targets to be achieved at the level of individual Member States for examples in specific areas such as air, water and waste. Perhaps some of these plans are a bit less media-friendly than the 20-20-20 targets.
However, just a few weeks ago the Seventh Environment Action programme passed into law, and that will guide EU environment policy to 2020. It is interesting to note that the programme we have ended up with is even more ambitious than our original proposal. All the targets were retained and some new ones were even added, including on resource efficiency, and the outcome on biodiversity, sustainable consumption and production, chemicals, and the implementation of legislation actually exceeds our initial expectations. You will no doubt be hearing a lot more about this plan now it has finally been adopted: we are calling it Living well, within the limits of our planet.

I would like you to focus on few key issues in the field of environment. Could you please, for each of them, provide a brief overview of the latest and most significant provisions that were adopted or that are potentially close to being adopted at a European level? Let’s start from waste management.
**As you probably know, EU legislation in this area centres round the Waste Framework Directive and the concept of the waste hierarchy, with prevention, re-use and recycling as the preferred options, over incineration and landfilling. Implementation still varies significantly around the EU, and it’s important for Member States to see how they compare to each other, and for countries still reliant on landfilling to improve their waste management systems.
In addition to the Commission’s efforts to help improve implementation of existing legislation, we are currently reviewing the reuse and recycling targets in the Waste Framework Directive and evaluating legislation for other waste streams (sewage sludge, PCB/PCT, packaging and packaging waste, end of life vehicles, and batteries), and we are also taking a close look at the problem of plastic waste. It is too early to speculate about the outcome, as the results will be released as a package next summer. One of the challenges will be to maximize re-use and recycling rates and move towards a more circular economy, while taking into account the differences in terms of performances between the Member States, as some of them are approaching zero landfill while others are still landfilling between 75 and 90 per cent of their waste.

And what about water resources?
**Last year was a big year for water in the EU with the publication of the water blueprint, a new strategy to reinforce water management. In Europe, clean, healthy waters should never be taken for granted. The pressures are greater than one might imagine, and many European regions are all too familiar with shortages, flooding, pollution and damage to ecosystems. We have made strides in protecting our waters since the first EU laws to protect them 30 years ago, but in 2013, the job is still only half-done, and a considerable effort will be needed to achieve good water status – the objective fixed by the Water Framework Directive.
So we are trying to improve the implementation of current EU water policy in areas such as the management of nitrates, industrial pollution and waste water, the restoration of wetlands and floodplains, the polluter pays principle, while developing the knowledge base for water policy. The blueprint is also an effort to improve the integration of water objectives in other policy areas, so that agriculture, fisheries, renewable energy, transport and the Cohesion and Structural Funds all support water protection. It also aims to fill gaps in the current legal framework, particularly as regards tools to increase water efficiency. We are thinking here of things like water efficiency targets to be set by Member States, and EU standards for water re-use, which haven’t yet been agreed.

Third point, soil occupation. In Brussels there seems to be a high level of awareness on that issue… but some problems are still there. For example, the need to increase the number of available infrastructures, avoiding, though, impacting too much on the territory. These two needs seem to be quite hard to reconcile…
**The spread of impermeable surfaces as a result of urbanisation and land-use change and the resulting loss of soil resources is one of the major environmental challenges facing Europe today, and we need to start using our soils more wisely if we are to safeguard their many vital services for future generations. We have to find the best way of raising awareness about the problem, allowing necessary developments while avoiding unnecessary damage.
Despite our efforts - and we have been trying for a long time - Europe doesn’t have binding legislation in this area. But we do have guidelines, showing what can be done to limit, mitigate and compensate for the problem (those are the three guiding principles, in fact). We drew them up using contributions from numerous national experts, and they contain many examples of policies, legislation, funding schemes, local planning tools, information campaigns and best practices implemented throughout the EU. We haven't given up on the idea of legislation in this area, but we are in a reflective phase – we might well need a new approach, and we are looking into the various options at the moment. So watch this space, as they say.

Recent newscasts, including news from the last few weeks, have drawn the attention on worrisome pollution levels in China, especially in urban centers. Is pollution no longer a problem in Europe?

**Europe’s air quality has improved markedly in recent decades, but there is still a long way to go. In fact air pollution is still the main environmental factor linked to premature mortality in the EU, and it still has significant negative effects on much of Europe's natural environment. This is why, before the end of this year, we will be launching a revised air strategy. We will be looking at ways to help Member States comply with existing targets (many of them are currently being missed), setting new binding targets for the period up to 2030 and filling the gaps in source legislation. The strategy will also contain non-regulatory support measures to enhance co-operation at all political levels, especially with regard to urban air pollution, research and innovation, and the international dimension of air policy. The stakes are very high with air pollution - the WHO recently classified air pollution as carcinogenic, for instance - and I think the package will be a major achievement for this Commission.
I understand from our dialogue with Chinese authorities that the government is putting increased emphasis on improving air quality in big cities. One of the important lessons we have learned in Europe is that air pollution and economic growth do not have to go together, and that it is quite possible to decouple economic growth from the growth of emissions. I believe that this is an important starting point for any country when considering policies to tackle air quality in cities. The measures being taken by the Chinese authorities to reduce vehicle emissions are very similar to our policies in Europe and we have cooperated in this area for many years sharing expertise and best practices. Other important pollution sources are industrial emissions and emissions from power generation - here too we are ready to cooperate further with Chinese authorities in establishing new policies to reduce emissions.

EU enlargement policies have enabled some countries - especially from Eastern Europe - to join the EU with environmental quality parameters that set them significantly apart from its historical Member States. Could you tell us about recent advancements, if any? Are there any significant improvements?
**I’m not sure it's helpful or useful to think in those terms. A small number of extended deadlines were given to certain Member States for certain elements of the acquis, but then again Member States have always been given realistic timelines to phase in onerous legislation like infrastructure for treating waste and waste water. To be frank not all of our older Member States have a sparkling record when it comes to the implementation of legislation that has now been on the statute books for more than two decades (I am thinking of waste water treatment here), so I don't see a reason to single out newer Member States.
That said, we constantly monitor the implementation of legislation, and if it did become a problem, we would not hesitate to act. But new Member States can bring so much - Croatia's contribution to Natura 2000 is immense, for example, around a third of its territory, with major wetlands, caves, mountainous forests, and some 8000 marine species in the Adriatic. That's great news for EU biodiversity.

What is, in your opinion, the most crucial environmental issue in Europe? And how are you tackling the problem?
**I have to come back to the need to use resources more efficiently. Our planet’s population will rise to more than 9 billions by the middle of the century. It’s seven billion now, and in just 30 years, there will be 2 billions more people on the planet. Nine billion people will put immense strain on resources like fresh water, oceans, land, raw materials, energy, biodiversity and ecosystems.
If we carry on the way we are, by 2050 we will need three times more resources than we currently use. And the demand for food, feed and fibre will rise by 70 per cent. More than half the ecosystems these resources depend on are already degraded, or are being used beyond their natural limits.
For two centuries we have relied on cheap and abundant resources, and the result was fantastic growth, bringing unimagined health and prosperity. But that model - where the richest 20 per cent use 60 times more than the poorest 20 per cent - is out of date. A resource-intensive growth model can’t be extended to the global population. It’s just physics.
Industrialised nations must change their production and consumption habits. Developing countries have to go down a different path. There has to be a way to higher living standards that doesn’t involve massive resource use on the scale used by the developed world. That’s why our focus has to be on future resource use -cutting down on unnecessary use and finding ways to operate far more efficiently. It’s an opportunity Europe has to seize.

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