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Sustainable Use of Natural Resources

For ongoing studies: see

Completed STUDIES on the Resource Strategy

1. Analysis of the key contributions to resource efficiency

This study is a first attempt to assess the extent to which recycling, waste prevention and improvements in product design in the EU contribute to overall material use and material productivity for non-energy materials: biomass (excl. wood fuel), minerals, metals and plastics.

Material savings were estimated for four scenarios: (1) current policies and (2) policies with targets reached; (3) feasible potential, and; (4) a theoretical 100% recycling rates.
Besides the theoretical 100% recycling scenario, all the other scenarios were based on material savings that could be achieved with little or no additional costs (in some cases there would be cost benefits).

The estimates for material savings range considerably depending on the source of waste statistics and assumptions made.

The study estimated that 7 - 18% of all non-energy material consumption is saved or avoided due to current recycling, waste prevention and ecodesign policies and practices. Recycling has by far the largest contribution (accounts for over 75% of total contributions) compared to waste prevention and product design. Waste prevention measures have considerable potential to reduce waste and overall material consumption. In both cases product design is the key to achieve greater amounts of recycling and waste prevention.

The future feasible potential for material savings from recycling, waste prevention and ecodesign are estimated to be from 15% to 28% of all non-energy material consumption. As material consumption is measured in weight, construction materials represent the greatest share of materials saved (about two thirds of the total materials saved). The recycling of metals, however, plays an important role in material productivity as this represents both significant environmental impact reductions as well as cost benefits. It was also shown that in general, increasing material productivity can also significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (3 - 5% of total annual GHG emissions).


2. Preparatory study for the review of the thematic strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources

This report supports the review of the EU Thematic Strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources (Resource Strategy). It highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the implementation of the Resource Strategy; its key actions; strategic leverages (awareness, knowledge, MS initiatives, and policy integration); and achievement of the key objectives of decoupling and observing the threshold of overexploitation.

Recent trends (1970-2007) show that considerable progress has been made on resource productivity in the EU. Although relative decoupling of material use and economic growth has been achieved in some areas, absolute decoupling is yet to occur.

The analysis of initiatives in countries within and beyond EU shows some promising examples, such as the use of market-based instruments. The establishment of a Data Centre for Natural Resources and the development of indicators of resource use provide a strong basis for the knowledge base. The awareness of environmental impacts of resource use and life-cycle thinking has been raised and particularly strengthened by the JRC’s work on life-cycle assessment and the establishment of the International Resource Panel.

There is still opportunity for improvement. In particular, the establishment of a strong knowledge base, allowing environmental impacts and resource use to be linked, remains an ambitious challenge. Strong disparities still remain between MS regarding their contribution to more sustainable use of resources, underlying the potential importance to set up the High Level Forum.

Finally, the study proposes five promising areas for future action:

1) Setting a more precise formulation of the Resource Strategy;
2) Raising awareness;
3) Improving knowledge, and the establishment of a basket of indicators;
4) Fostering the development of MS initiatives, and
5) Fostering policy integration.

3. Potential of the Ecological Footprint for monitoring environmental impacts from natural resource use

Analysis of the potential of the Ecological Footprint and related assessment tools for use in the EU’s Thematic Strategy on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources

The Resource Strategy includes action to develop indicators for monitoring progress towards decoupling. The Commission aims to develop resource-specific indicators to evaluate how negative environmental impacts have been decoupled from resource use.

Ideally, indicators will be as aggregated as possible, easily understandable and built on existing work. This is likely to mean a “basket” of aggregated indicators. The ultimate aspiration is to have one or highly aggregated indicators that could be compared to the single economic indicator, GDP.

Abstract of the project

The Ecological Footprint is a useful indicator for assessing progress on the EU’s Resource Strategy and is unique among the 13 indicators reviewed in this study in its ability to relate resource use to the concept of carrying capacity. However, further improvements in data quality, methodologies and assumptions are required.

To effectively monitor EU progress on the Resource Strategy, additional indicators are required. This study recommends adoption of a basket consisting of four resource indicators: Ecological Footprint (EF), Environmentally-weighted Material Consumption (EMC), Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production (HANPP) and Land and Ecosystem Accounts (LEAC).

The identified basket of indicators can be applied to monitor de-coupling of economic growth from environmental impacts as well as illustrating the effectiveness of a number of specific policies. Capturing the geographical distribution of pollution impacts and impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity requires the use of indicators additional to those in the basket.

4. Significant Natural Resource Trade Flows into the EU and their Environmental Impacts

The overall objective of the Resource Strategy is to reduce the negative environmental impacts generated by the use of natural resources in a growing economy (decoupling). To achieve this objective, the strategy includes action to:

Improve our understanding and knowledge of European resource use, its negative environmental impact and significance in the EU and globally.

This study put an emphasis on the global impact of European trade flows.

Abstract of the project:

European and other major economies depend on natural resources for their prosperity, but current patterns of increasing resource use are causing environmental degradation globally.  As for most developed regions, the EU is highly dependent on imported resources, and as such is in effect exporting its environmental impacts.

The study reviews the environmental impacts occurring outside the EU – in source countries and from transport to the EU – of 40 highly significant trade flows of raw and processed materials, ranging from agricultural commodities to metals and minerals to fossil fuels.

It discusses whether commodity groups have similar patterns of impacts and highlights how impacts can vary significantly between source countries for a variety of reasons, and points at several data gaps.  Therefore the study suggests a simple methodology for using the information compiled to identify resource trade flows having a more significant environmental impact and identifies four key areas for policy developments that could help to reduce these impacts.