Transitioning to a green and resource-efficient economy is seen to be a key step towards a sustainable, reindustrialised Europe. The development of a circular economy that is both socially inclusive and environmentally responsible requires systemic changes in resource use and recovery efficiencies towards the ultimate goal of decoupling economic growth from dependence on limited raw materials and the generation of environmentally problematic waste streams.
The “Roadmap for a Resource Efficient Europe” is a key component of the European Commission's “Europe 2020 Strategy”. The central aim of this roadmap is to increase resource productivity and to decouple economic growth from resource use and its environmental impact. A central challenge identified in the Roadmap is to transform the economy into a resource-efficient path that will bring increased competitiveness and new sources of growth and jobs through cost savings from improved efficiency, commercialisation of innovations and better management of resources over their whole life cycle. Four specific aspects are addressed: sustainable consumption and production; turning waste into a resource; supporting research and innovation; and removing environmentally harmful subsidies (getting the prices right).
JRC scientific and technical support to policies for a green and resource-efficient Europe is necessarily based on a life cycle approach that takes into account all relevant interactions associated with a product, service, activity, or entity from a supply-chain perspective. This requires attention to material and energy flows and emissions that occur along the entire life cycles of the processes of concern (i.e. from the level of primary resource extraction through processing, distribution, use, and eventual disposal or reuse phases). Such an approach is essential to effective resource and environmental management because important interactions may occur “upstream” or “downstream” along supply chains, and hence may not be immediately evident at a given focal point. The life cycle approach is also essential for making transparent any potential trade-offs between different types of material or energy dependencies and impacts associated with specific management decisions, and thereby to help avoid unintended shifting of burdens. Life-cycle-based approaches and tools developed by the JRC in support of EU policies include life cycle indicators and data (European Resource Efficiency Platform), standardised methods for quantifying the environmental performance of goods, services and organisations (environmental footprint), metrics for assessing material efficiency for products and production technologies, support to eco-innovation, life-cycle-based waste management guidelines, and assessment of critical raw material dependencies throughout the economy.
Life Cycle Indicators and Data
Implementing commitments in the Integrated Product Policy Communication, the JRC established the European Platform on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) (a web portal which provides guidance on life cycle assessment), the Product and Organisation Environmental Footprint methods, and the European Reference Life Cycle Database (ELCD). The ELCD has been developed in cooperation with business to provide data on background emissions and resource consumption for key material, energy, and transport supply chains in the EU. The International Reference Life Cycle Data Network (ILCD), a network of available life cycle data from national projects, business, contractors and other stakeholders worldwide, has similarly been established/coordinated by the JRC.
The JRC has also developed prototype environmental life cycle indicators, including the Resource Efficiency Indicators, the Basket-of-Product Indicators and the Waste Management Indicators. These life-cycle-based indicators are intended to help monitor progress towards sustainability and to provide an integrated view of the links between consumption, production, resource depletion, reuse and recycling, as well as environmental impacts and waste generation at both EU and Member State level.
The Resource Efficiency life cycle indicators are undergoing further development to encompass additional Member States and to include longer time series data. The European Reference Life Cycle Database (ELCD) is foreseen to play a major role as a source of data for the environmental profiles of products considered in the Indicators. The Product and Organisation Environmental Footprint guides provide the reference methodologies for calculations. Both of these JRC projects support the enhancement of the European Resource Efficiency Platform (EREP).
Life Cycle Assessment
European Reference Life Cycle Database
Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) and Organisation Environmental Footprint (OEF)
The Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) and Organisation Environmental Footprint (OEF) have been developed in close cooperation with the Directorate General for the Environment (DG ENV) in response to several policy documents, including the Sustainable Consumption and Production Action Plan (2008) and the Resource Efficiency Roadmap (2011).
The PEF and OEF are methods to evaluate the environmental performance of products (goods and services) and organisations, taking a life cycle approach. These methods are based on existing, extensively tested, and widely used methods that have been further developed to address the following objectives:
- Be applicable without having to consult a series of other documents (a ‘stand-alone’ document);
- Provide comprehensive evaluation along the entire life cycle;
- Provide comprehensive coverage of potential environmental impacts;
- Increase robustness and comparability of methods and results of environmental assessments.
The PEF and OEF are developed within the Commission's Single Market for Green Products initiative, which, among other things, calls for:
- the establishment of two methods to measure environmental performance throughout the lifecycle, the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) and the Organisation Environmental Footprint (OEF);
- the use of these methods by Member States, companies, private organisations and the financial community via a Commission Recommendation;
- a three-year testing period to develop product- and sector-specific rules through a multi-stakeholder process.
Material efficiency of products for the circular economy
In its aim to transform the economy through more sustainable processes and the implementation of a circular economy, the European Commission's Roadmap for a Resource Efficient Europe calls for the use of product policies such as Ecodesign, Ecolabelling, or Green Product Procurement to address material efficiency considerations. The revised EU legal framework for waste also takes into account the entire product life cycle and focuses on waste prevention, reuse, recycling and recovery.
The JRC has developed methods to assess the material efficiency of products according to several parameters, including reusability/recyclability/recoverability, recycled content, use of key resources (including critical raw materials), and durability. These methods enable analysis of the material efficiency of representative products in order to identify material intensity hotspots, and to transparently derive relevant product criteria. When implemented in policies, such product criteria can contribute to improved material efficiency in the economy as a whole and hence reduce residual waste and overall life-cycle environmental impacts.
Circular Economy – Waste Management
The Waste Framework Directive calls for the use of Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) in order to improve the environmental performance of European waste management. In response, the JRC, in cooperation with the Directorate General for the Environment, has developed target-audience-specific guidelines for the management of waste streams.
These guides focus on the most relevant technical aspects to be considered when applying Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to the waste management sector. The guides build on the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO) 14040 and 14044 standards for LCA and the International Reference Life Cycle Data System (ILCD) Handbook. They are intended for use by waste managers, technicians and LCA practitioners, but also provide policy-makers with insights and information on key considerations when using LCT and LCA to support policy-making in the waste management context.
Life Cycle Assessment
Critical Raw Materials – life cycle approaches
The Raw Material Initiative highlighted the importance of ensuring an undistorted and reliable access to raw materials for the EU economy. In response, the JRC is developing life cycle-based methodologies for systematic consideration of Critical Raw Materials (CRM) in product supply chains. These methods enable tracking the flows of CRMs in the economy, as well as assessing the environmental impacts of their extraction, use and end-of-life processes. The methods build on proposals for product policy criteria and on existing life cycle assessment methods. Insights are provided at the micro and macro scales using life cycle-based indicators. The JRC has also established linkages with other research bodies in a joint effort to improve current methods for criticality evaluation and the periodical revision of the EU CRM list.
Eco-Innovation in supply chains
Eco-innovation has been defined by the European Commission in its Eco-innovation Action Plan as “any form of innovation resulting in or aiming at significant and demonstrable progress towards the goal of sustainable development, through reducing impacts on the environment, enhancing resilience to environmental pressures, or achieving a more efficient and responsible use of natural resources.” Key sectors such as transportation, housing and telecommunications greatly impact the environment, hence eco-innovations in these sectors may result in substantial environmental gains. The development of more efficient recycling technologies will similarly contribute to the efficient use of resources.
The Sustainable Consumption and Production and Sustainable Industrial Policy and related policies (such as Ecodesign, Energy labelling, Ecolabelling, and Green Product Procurement) underscore the relationship between sustainability and innovation. They also identify important drivers of eco-innovation, including more stringent regulations / standards and more limited access to resources. In this context, the Eco-Innovation Action Plan, in complement to the Flagship Initiatives, is seen to be a major contributor in the transition towards a green economy.
The JRC contributes to the development of environmental assessment methods that enable policy makers and industry to assess the life cycle environmental performance of products. Such analyses can encourage eco-innovation in industry, including the substitution of hazardous substances or scarce resources, and enhanced recyclability at end-of-life. They can also contribute to the definition of improved product criteria and standards in policies that will encourage industries to develop and/or adopt eco-innovative technologies. Current JRC activities include participation in the HarwinFP7 project, which aims to develop innovative multifunctional windows to reduce hte energy consumption of buildings whilst simultaneously ensuring the efficient use of resources.