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Potocnik: eco-innovation requires a systemic rethink

15/10/2012

Eco-innovation should go beyond incremental environmental improvements and efficiency gains, and aim at “breaking out of locked-in systems and thinking,” according to EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik.

The Eco-innovation Action Plan should be a tool to respond to the need to stay within planetary environmental and resource boundaries, and should promote “greening of all of the sectors,” Potocnik said. He was speaking at an event on Eco-innovation: Harnessing R&D for a Green Economy, organised by the Science|Business Innovation Board (26 September).

He urged companies to think more about their long-term sustainability. “I am a bit afraid that short-termism is at the core of many of the [environmental and economic] problems. It is not allowing us to organise ourselves more sustainably,” he added.

In particular, many businesses should focus on resource productivity as well as labour productivity in order to stay competitive. “We are fully locked-in to production in Europe that is resource intensive. We are extremely import dependent,” Potocnik said. He noted that the EU imports six times more resources that it exports, and a decreased reliance on imports would bring both environmental and economic benefits.

Policymakers could use regulation to promote change. The Commission is “seriously considering” a ban on landfilling of waste, to come into force in 2020, Potocnik noted. This would “create a very clear case financially” for investing in recycling, and for reducing waste. Speakers at the event discussed how cars or buildings, for example, could be better designed so that at the end of their life spans they could be dismantled and their parts re-used, rather than treated as waste.

Potocnik gave the example of tyre manufacturers leasing, rather than selling, tyres. This would create the incentive to develop longer-lasting tyres, or tyres that can be more easily reconditioned. “This is the type of philosophy that changes behaviour,” Potocnik said.

Warning on limits

Underlying the Commissioner's arguments was a stark warning about environmental and resource limits. If current consumption patterns continue, by 2050 a second planet will be needed, he said.

For example, a global water shortage is “round the corner,” Potocnik said. A US National Intelligence Council report found that the global water supply shortfall will be 40% by 2030.

“These global megatrends are obvious. We don't have an alternative. We need to live in different ways” and respect environmental limits, Potocnik said. “It is important to understand these bare facts”.

Eco-innovation could encompass a range of policies designed to encourage different patterns of production and consumption. These include “shifting taxes from labour to polluters,” removing environmentally harmful subsidies, eco-design and eco-labelling, and appropriate resource pricing policies, such as water pricing, Potocnik said.

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