National policy initiatives prove EU sustainable resource use possible

Foto: Wikimedia Commons

Publish date: July 1, 2010

Absolute ‘decoupling between material use and economic growth has not yet been achieved in the EU and will require strong actions beyond business as usual’ says a new study, undertaken for the European Commission. However ten remarkable initiatives by certain EU member states prove that with the right policy tools, specific commitments can be achieved towards sustainable resource use.

According to the report, presented at a workshop in June to prepare a review of the EU’s 2005 thematic strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources, the EU’s sustainable resource policies have been systematically undermined due to a lack of measurable commitments. As a result key concepts and goals have been ‘overall heterogeneously and partially taken on board in national policies’.

This reflects into persistently high rates of material consumption and material extraction in the EU. Material consumption in the EU still amounts for 13% of all materials extracted globally, while domestic material extraction has been on the increase over the past years.

Nevertheless there is reason to be optimistic about the potential of policy to act as a driver for a more sustainable use of natural resources, according to the study. Ten successful policy cases in various member-states indicate that the right regulatory initiatives can lead to remarkable success. These best practices can be copied by other member states or ‘up-scaled’ at the EU-level.

A brief description of some of the policies exemplified by the study is provided below:

Denmark: Consumption Tax

This initiative establishes energy and environment taxes with the goal of creating cost incentives towards less resource use.

The rates for the regular energy taxes are set according to the energy content of the fuel. The tax on coal, oil, natural gas and electricity used for heating is fixed and corresponds to around DKK 51 per GJ (about €6.85). Energy taxes have indeed achieved a reduction in the overall consumption of fossil fuels. 

Environment taxes cover three main groups: taxes on environmentally harmful products involved in consumption and manufacturing (i.e. pesticides, insecticides, and greenhouse gases), taxes on discharge of pollutants (i.e. wastewater) and taxes on scarce resources (i.e. water and raw materials).

Although proactive taxation has not produced radical changes, as activities like transport and energy consumption appear still deeply locked into the economy, it has placed a significant burden on environmentally harmful activities underlining Denmark’s resolve to tackle them. In 2006 Denmark managed to levy an equivalent of 6.0% of its GDP through energy and environment taxes (€ 13.2bn), placing it first in relevant taxation among all EU countries.

Sweden: Carbon Tax and Fossil Fuel Use

A carbon tax has been introduced by Sweden with a goal of changing consumer behaviour. In 2007, the tax was SEK 930 (€101) per ton of CO2. The introduction of the Swedish carbon tax has resulted in a reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels, and to an increase in the share of renewables, especially spurring a significant move from fossil fuels to biomass.

The main difference between the Swedish carbon tax model and the Danish environment and energy tax model is that the Swedish model is an example of carbon tax which is levied on the carbon content of fuels, whereas the latter is a fixed consumption tax on spending on goods and services, including fossil fuels. Both models though are similar in a way of attempting to change consumer behavior by setting a price which more adequately reflects the externalities of environmentally harmful products, services and practices.

France: Raw Material Accounting

In its 2006 Development Strategy, France stressed the need for the development of raw material and resource flow indicators. Since then, the French Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development has been working closely with domestic data providers to provide a framework to measure the resource consumption of its economy. The main goal is to assess emission intensity and measure the effectiveness of environmental policies. Indeed, the scheme has already provided a clear picture of France’s main macro-level flow indicators and specific estimation regarding national and per capita material consumption.

Germany: Targets for Resource Efficiency and Raw Material Productivity

The German government is pursuing the goal to make Germany the most resource efficient economy by 2020, by doubling its raw materials productivity in comparison to 1994. The scheme targets all industrial sectors and is the first attempt to quantify resource use targets.

Efforts to achieve these quantifiable targets have materialised in a number of initiatives in different Länder. Such an effort is the Effizienz Agentur in Northern-Westphalia, which aims at helping ‘SMEs to achieve strategic and technical improvements, concerning the sustainable economy – through new strategies, innovative technology and ecologically-oriented measures’.

An annual increase of 2.9% in resource productivity was indeed achieved between 1994 and 2004. The initiative has been deemed successful even if specific goals for 2020 are eventually not met.

Netherlands: Criteria for Biomass

The Netherlands are currently developing standards to ensure the sustainable production of biomass along the whole chain and help companies and consumers adopt sustainable consumption habits.

Portugal: Organized Waste market

The aim of the law establishing an organised waste market is to set up various online waste transaction platforms to bring together waste producers and materials consumers. This market is meant to enhance the recovery and introduction of materials thus prolonging the life-cycle of materials. The platforms will be managed by private entities. This initiative is too recent to be assessed.