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Monday, 27 July 2009

EU: Solid Progress On Sustainability

I’m often caught reminiscing about last time Sweden had the EU Presidency, also known as the good old days when I was still a newshound.  But the highlight of the 2001 Swedish Presidency for me was the Gothenburg Council, which aimed to put sustainable development at the heart of all EU policy.  That was the objective of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy and for anyone who has ever wondered where all that led us, the European Commission has just published its 2009 review of the strategy.

The paper ‘Mainstreaming sustainable development into EU policies’ says that despite “solid progress, ... unsustainable trends persist in the EU in several areas” and that efforts need to be intensified.  Going beyond the press release, the unsustainable trends are listed as the demand on natural resources which “exceeds what the Earth can sustain in the long-term”, biodiversity being in decline globally with major ecosystems placed under increasing pressure, energy consumption in transport continuing to rise and the fact that global poverty persists with the Millennium Development Goals requiring major efforts if they are to be achieved.

The Commission gives itself a pat on the back for the climate and energy package of December 2008, actions for greening of transport and more intelligent transport systems, improvement of energy efficiency of buildings, revisions of the Eco-Design and Eco-Label Directives, setting up an integrated maritime policy framework and EU health strategy, work on migration and fight against poverty and exclusion.  To get into all those here would be too lengthy but clearly progress has been made.  And yet, the goal of putting sustainable development at the heart of EU policy still seems a long way from being achieved.

I’m not sure if we’re playing ‘buzzword bingo’ here but the report states that the “current economic and financial crisis shows that sustainability is also a key factor for our financial systems and the economy as a whole”.  More and more we’re coming across sustainability as a catch-all concept and the panacea for all ills.  Isn’t this stretching the economic pillar of sustainable development a bit too far?

Does the EU’s Better Regulation initiative to reduce the administrative burden really contribute to sustainability?  According to the Commission report it does, through the impact assessment process.  The absence of a real definition of sustainability and sustainable development is starting to grate.  At least the report goes on to say that the European Economic Recovery Plan should be compatible with long-term sustainability goals.  Perhaps we could integrate sustainability into all policy areas then, as set out in the same Sustainable Development Strategy.

The economic crisis “creates a unique opportunity to create a new sustainable economy through smart green growth”, said Commission President, José Manuel Barroso in a press release.  But does the global slowdown create the conditions for new technology to flourish?  We certainly hope so but feel that it needs to be more than just reduced industrial output which leads to recorded reductions of emissions and other nasties.  Many of the technologies are already out there but need to be grasped by pioneer citizens while policymakers create the right framework to support the development and adoption of green tech.  It’s easy to criticise and knock policymakers who have a thankless task but that’s not the right way to spread a positive message on sustainability.  Overall this report is an extremely interesting read.  Clearly, we are going in the right direction but the speed of progress is bound to frustrate some.  Later this year, Eurostat is expected to release its interpretation of the strategy, measured against sustainable development indicators.  We’ll come back then.

Commission report http://ec.europa.eu/sustainable/docs/com_2009_400_en.pdf