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#Sibiu - Leaders must implement citizens' consultations

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The future of Europe is environmentally and socially sustainable, and it is within reach if political leaders take action now - as environment and social organizations, representing millions of Europeans, we stand together to deliver this message to national and EU leaders meeting in Sibiu on 9 May to discuss the future of Europe. People across Europe have shown that they care about social justice and the environment, and this cannot be ignored, write Kélig Puyet (Director, Social Platform) and Ariel Brunner (pictured) (chairman of the Green 10 and senior head of policy of BirdLife Europe and Central Asia).  

In the past year, EU leaders embarked on an exercise to carry out citizens’ consultations across Europe. The results show that people care deeply about environmental and social protection. Listening to these demands is an opportunity to close the gap between citizens' wishes and the decision-making process.

How? By engaging with civil society organisations, by putting Agenda 2030 for sustainable development as a top political priority with tangible social and environmental objectives, and by ensuring that the EU’s financial and democratic systems support them.

To ensure a viable future for people and planet, we must meet the Paris Agreement objective to limit temperature rise to 1.5 C°. Equally urgent is to fight the loss of biodiversity. The European Commission has put forward its ‘Clean Planet for All’ vision, which presents scenarios for a climate neutral economy by 2050.

Member states must now endorse such a goal to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, and set the mandate for the next Commission to prepare legislation that will turn it into reality. Measures to fight inequalities, to boost the use and production of renewable energy, and to fully decarbonize the transport sector are necessary to avoid failing the march towards net zero emissions. The transition will only be just – and successful – if it tackles inequalities, prioritizes those most likely to be left behind, and is designed with and for people.

Future policies should highlight the benefits to society, be based on dialogue, and propose solutions to create locally-appropriate transition plans. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide us with a road map to tackle environmental and social issues on a global scale. For this they need urgent EU implementation.

A high-level strategy can be advanced by mandating the future European Commission President to ensure Agenda 2030 is owned at the highest political level, reflected in the composition of the Commission and therefore properly implemented across policies.

The SDGs will also benefit from effective implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, the EU’s new vehicle that has the potential to deliver new and to strengthen existing social rights for people across Europe. We believe it is the right tool to bring about the necessary policy changes to address key trends, including poverty and social exclusion, job precariousness and in-work poverty, and barriers to accessing social protection.

However, its success hinges on the use of a thorough implementation approach. For instance, more ambitious EU and national legislation is needed to address existing gaps in social rights, to tackle discrimination and to avoid the emergence of new inequalities.

The EU and its member states also need to shift the balance of EU and national budgets towards people- and planet-centred policies. This must involve an alignment with international commitments on climate, biodiversity and sustainable development, and give priority to social investment; the revenue to finance this investment could be supported through a reform of tax policies to target corporate tax avoidance, estimated by the Commission to amount to some €50-70 billion per year.

The scale of current social, environmental and political challenges also requires healthy democratic systems, and the involvement of civil society organizations throughout the decision-making process. The change in our systems will be possible if the rule of law is upheld domestically in EU member states. Freedom of speech and association, a vibrant civil society, together with a free press and an independent judiciary, play a vital role in scrutinizing government action and holding those in power accountable. The Sibiu summit has the potential to be a watershed moment.

EU leaders will discuss Europe’s Strategic Agenda for the next five years. If they take this opportunity to look at the social and environment crisis directly in the face – and take action to secure a sustainable Europe for present and future generations – then Sibiu will truly be one for the history books: Paris – Rome – Maastricht – Sibiu?

Circular economy

Why should countries and regions look to a circular approach to rebuild and transform their economies?

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By 2050, the world will consume resources equivalent to three planet Earths. With an ever-increasing unsustainable consumption of finite resources, rapid and deliberate action is critically needed to respond to this challenge. And yet in 2019, we sent less than a tenth (a mere 8.6%) of all material produced back into the cycle, to be reused and recycled. That is down 1% from 9.1% in 2018, demonstrating progress is not exponential, write Cliona Howie and Laura Nolan.

A circular economy development path in Europe could result in a 32% reduction of primary material consumption by 2030, and 53% by 2050. So what is hindering bold action to achieve these targets?

In March 2020 the EU launched a new Circular Economy Action Plan in response to making Europe “cleaner and more competitive”, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stating that a “circular economy will make us less dependent and boost our resilience. This is not only good for our environment, but it reduces dependency by shortening and diversifying supply chains.” In September, von der Leyen proposed to increase the targets for emission reduction by more than a third on the road to the EU becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

Simultaneously, regional and national governments are fighting the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic to help rebuild their economies, create and save jobs. A circular economy transition is key to that rebuild, all the while reaching net-zero emissions targets set by the Paris Agreement and recent EU Green Deal to ensure our economy sets a sustainable path for our future.

Commit to a circular economy to secure jobs and financing

A circular economy can create new economic opportunities, ensure that industries save materials, and generate extra value from products and services. From 2012 to 2018 the number of jobs linked to the circular economy in the EU grew by 5%. A circular transition at European scale could create 700,000 new jobs by 2030 and increase the EU’s GDP by additional 0.5%.

A circular economy can boost investments, secure new funding and speed up recovery plans following the pandemic. Regions that embrace the circular economy will be able to harvest funding from the European Union’s 'Next Generation EU' recovery and resilience financing instruments, including the European Green Deal Investment Plan, InvestEU and funds supporting the Circular Economy Action Plan. The European Regional Development Fund will complement private innovation funding to bring new solutions to the market. Political and economic support from the European Union and its Member States to develop local policies in favour of a circular economy is fostering the development of national and regional strategies and tools for cooperation, such as in Slovenia and the Western Balkan countries.

Moving towards systems innovation to accelerate the transition

Today we can see many great single initiatives in cities and regions across Europe. But “conventional approaches will not be sufficient,” the Commission pointed out last December when it published the European Green Deal proposals. Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said “a more systemic change will be necessary to move beyond just waste management and achieve a true transition to a circular economy.”

While existing innovation projects add value to the transition to a circular economy, the challenge we still face is the need to work across many disciplines and value chains simultaneously. This cross-cutting approach requires sophisticated and formal coordination. The transition to a circular economy must be systemic and embedded in all parts of society to be truly transformative.

There is no template, but there is a methodology

People are quick to look at a problem and find an immediate solution. Solutions to single challenges will incrementally improve the current status, but will not help us reach our ambitious goals with the big picture in mind. Furthermore, what may work in one city or region, might not work in another market. “Templates and plans on how to change cities to become circular are a linear way of thinking,” explained Ladeja Godina Košir, Director Circular Change, Chair European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform. “We have to learn from each other and understand what has worked. We also have to dare to see how each city is unique to develop circular economy models for each city.”

We need mechanisms that can help us learn from others but also cater to unique environments and continually evolving needs. At EIT Climate-KIC, the process we use to do this is called Deep Demonstration. It is a systems designs tool that converts territories and value chains into living laboratories for circular economy and innovation ready for large scale, action-based implementation.

Deep Demonstrations: a transferable methodology

Slovenia is one example among many countries committed to large-scale circular transition, working with EIT Climate-KIC to develop and deliver a demonstration pilot that will tackle entire value chain transformation by leveraging policy, education, finance, entrepreneurship and community engagement. Elements of these experiences are replicable across other European test sites: currently we are working to develop a circular economy transition approach with countries like Italy, Bulgaria and Ireland, regions like Cantabria in Spain and cities like Milan and Leuven, proving that a diverse range of economies can engage and enact transition at scale.

Putting systemic circular solutions in place requires stakeholders to work together across the EU, state, regional and local levels. EIT Climate-KIC is harnessing collective learning across complex issues and challenges, including hosting multiple workshops with actors from industry, administration, NGOs, the public and private sectors, and research and academia.

Leaving no one behind

The main beneficiaries of a sustainable, low carbon transition are the local communities, industry and businesses as well as other stakeholders from different sectors and value chains. It is critical to grant ownership of this transformation and its action plans to all citizens, without which effective transition will not occur. This includes community members, public servants, academics, entrepreneurs, students and policymakers.

This integration of all actors across so many sections of our society ensures that receptive and fluid interface frameworks are built into the portfolio approach. Yet, today policy and fiscal frameworks are designed for a linear economy. By working with public administration and the European Commission to promote multi-stakeholder dialogue, EIT Climate-KIC leverages action across various levels of governance and sectors: if we need to change the entire system, working with one Ministry alone will not cut it. In our ongoing work, we have seen many departments within regions earnest and determined to work together. But when decision makers gather around the table to unpack a complex problem like a circular economy, it is not uncommon to realise there has not been enough time to have the right conversations to coordinate programmes than span several inter-departmental or ministry budget lines. Within our Circular Economy Transition Deep Demonstrations, the Transition Policy Lab works across multiple government bodies to reshape and reformulate new policies that integrate circularity into a new regulatory framework.

A circular economy can lead to sustainable and inclusive societies

Engaging all different communities and stakeholders, as well as providing spaces where anyone can learn, develop and maintain relevant skills, enables citizens to take part and engage in the transitions - ensuring the diverse reality of a region’s population remains in focus.

If at this time of unprecedented societal disruption, Europe’s regions take this opportunity to build more inclusive and competitive circular economy programmes, the compounding benefits will speak for themselves. It means moving from individual technological solutions to a wider portfolio of activity that will stimulate new skills and create jobs, reach zero-emissions and improve access to an improved quality of life. It means working together, in a fair and transparent way. It means identifying and then changing the policies that are stopping systemic innovation from taking place. Through the support of Deep Demonstrations, EIT Climate-KIC is integrating learnings, helping share these learnings and building on best practice and local adaptation to create sustainable and inclusive societies in other markets, regions and cities.

The reward would amplify everything a region has set out to achieve: reach net-zero carbon emissions, enable regions to remain competitive and leave nobody behind.

Cliona Howie has been working as an environmental consultant for over 20 years, supporting both public and private sectors in areas such as conservation, resource efficiency, industrial ecology and symbiosis. At EIT Climate-KIC she is the lead on circular economy development and transition.

Laura Nolan is a stakeholder engagement expert with experience delivering programmes in the fields of climate change, renewable energy and sustainable development. At EIT Climate-KIC she leads on circular economy programme development and manages European projects such as H2020 CICERONE.

For more information contact [email protected]

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Circular economy

Circular Economy Stakeholder Conference: Together for a cleaner and more competitive Europe

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The Circular Economy Stakeholder Conference  - the main annual conference dedicated to circular economy in Europe, gathering decision makers, businesses, public authorities, NGOs, knowledge communities and civil society organizations - is taking place online. A joint initiative of the European Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee, the focus of this year's event will be on the potential of the circular economy for a green recovery and how the numerous initiatives under the recently adopted second Circular Economy Action Plan, can help build a more resilient economy.

Opening the debate, European Green Deal Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans said: “COVID-19 has underlined the urgency of stopping the destruction of our natural environment and exposed the fragility of the current economic model. Circular economy is the model of the future, for Europe and the world. It brings balance back in our relationship with nature and reduces our vulnerability to disruptions in global, complex supply chains. With circular production and consumption we can create a healthy and resilient economy for decades to come.”

Launching the online #EUCircularTalks, Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said: “The time has come to accelerate the green transition and bring the circular economy to the mainstream. Half of the greenhouse gas emissions and more than 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress come from resource extraction and processing. To respond to these challenges, we have adopted a new, most ambitious EU Circular Economy Action Plan. Its initiatives will help us build back better and create new business opportunities, to the benefit of EU our citizens and the environment.”

The sessions  will cover a wide range of topics, including the role of consumers and tackling green claims; making sustainable products the norm; constructions and buildings; the importance of research and innovation; the links with our skills agenda – to name just a few. The event also features the European Business Awards for the Environment ceremony – EU scheme celebrating those businesses leading the transition to a sustainable economy. It recognises businesses in the categories of management, product & services; process; developing country co-operation; and business & biodiversity. More information is available here.

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Circular economy

#CircularEconomy - 'With a new impetus for sustainable development'

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The COVID-19 crisis has created the conditions for circular products and services to become the norm in Europe, says the EESC. In a recent opinion on the new EU Circular Economy Action Plan, the EESC urges lawmakers to ensure the circular economy finds a place and resources in the overall "greenprint" for Europe's recovery.

"The COVID-19 crisis can be a great opportunity to start up again with new impetus for sustainable development," said Antonello Pezzini, rapporteur for the EESC opinion on the new EU Circular Economy Action Plan, adopted at the July plenary session.

The vision of circular products and services becoming the norm, which was behind the plan put forward by the European Commission back in March as COVID-19 was looming, is becoming more tangible as the crisis unfolds. "With the new Action Plan, the circular economy can really become a pillar of the Green New Deal," said the rapporteur.

The Action Plan takes in much of the advice already pioneered by the EESC in its 2016 opinion on the first Circular Economy Package, particularly in areas such as eco-design, reparability, premature obsolescence and secondary raw materials, and as such is very welcome. However, broader measures will also be needed, in the EESC's view.

The soft side of the Circular Economy

A real circular economy culture needs to be nourished, argues the EESC. Taxation should shift from labour to resources and imported products that flout circular economy principles. Wealth should be measured through criteria which go beyond GDP.

The current systems used to calculate GDP (based on either expenditure, production or income) are an expression of the old "take-make-use-dispose" mentality. The EESC suggests using new elements other than economic performance, such as:

  • Creating solidarity-based systems for an inclusive society;
  • living within the limits of our planet, and;
  • a fair distribution of resources.

Softer aspects such as education will be key to fostering the new mindset and encouraging people to change their daily habits and behaviour, in the EESC's view.

Advertising should also be encouraged to move away from consumerism and present long-lasting, reusable goods as being of value to the consumer and society, urges the EESC.

The future of the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform

The European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, which was set up jointly by the EESC and the previous European Commission, could support many of the actions outlined in the new Action Plan.

The Platform is an inter-institutional initiative, launched by the EESC and the Commission in 2017. This three-year period has seen three well-attended joint annual conferences, a Coordination Group that has delivered 50 initiatives, and a website that has received over 230 000 visitors, brought together over 350 Good Practices, 33 Strategies and a Knowledge Hub with more than 200 publications. The Platform has an active presence on social media with over 2 400 Twitter followers, and has recently established a presence on LinkedIn.

The Platform, which is intended to encourage the exchange of circular economy knowledge and know-how, should therefore continue under the new Plan and become the go-to resource for circular economy players in Europe, urges the EESC. It has, in fact, just published a Call for Expression of Interest for a Coordination Group for the new mandate starting in Autumn 2020.

"The Circular Economy Platform has been at the forefront of circular economy implementation and policy design across the EU. It has taken on a very strong leadership role in this area" says opinion co-rapporteur Cillian Lohan. "We are confident that it will continue to serve a very useful purpose in the future".

Background

The new Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) proposed by the European Commission in March 2020 sets out a series of new initiatives covering the entire cycle of product design and lifespan to enable both individuals and businesses to play a role in the circular economy.

The plan includes some 35 measures over a three-year period (mid-2020 to mid-2023) to:

  • Make sustainable products the norm in the EU;
  • empower consumers with access to reliable information and a true "right to repair", and;
  • focus on the sectors that use the most resources and where the potential for circularity is high, such as electronics and ICT, batteries and vehicles, packaging, plastics, textiles, construction and buildings, waste.

    Currently, only 8.6% of global activities operate on circular principles.

According the World Economic Forum, in 2019, over 92 billion tonnes of materials were extracted and processed, contributing to about half of global CO2 emissions. UNDP says resource extraction and processing accounts for more than 90% of global biodiversity loss.

Businesses and consumers are increasingly recognizing the damage caused by linear economic models, which rely heavily on resource consumption and involve the use of premature obsolescence techniques, encouraging people to constantly buy new products.

VIDEO: Europe at work

The European Economic and Social Committee is an institutional consultative body established by the 1957 Treaty of Rome. It represents the various economic and social components of organized civil society. Its consultative role enables its members, and hence the organisations they represent, to participate in the EU decision-making process.

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