Voluntary measures should be supplemented by more binding regulatory measures if Europe is to shift to a green economy based on sustainable production and consumption. Greener fiscal policies and market-based incentives need to be in place to support this transition. These are the key messages of the opinion requested by the Danish presidency, which was adopted by the European Economic and Social Committee at its plenary session.
"Voluntary instruments hitherto used to move production and consumption towards more sustainability have shown their limits. Uptake of these instruments by businesses and consumers is limited and unevenly spread", said An Le Nouail Marlière (France, Workers' Group), rapporteur for the opinion. She noted that the EU need to step up their regulatory efforts in order to phase out unsustainable products, scrap subsidies that do not take full account of negative effects on environment, and introduce green public procurement policies.
The Committee believes that while unsustainable products are being phased out, public authorities must simultaneously do two things: heavily support investment in research on new, eco-friendly products and incentivise businesses to innovate.
The EESC embraces the concept of extended producer responsibility, which gets businesses to assume the cost of a product's whole life-cycle, including disposal, and suggests establishing it as "a general principle and basis of legal corporate accountability and responsibility". At the same time, the Committee makes clear that the future market for sustainable products must not be accessible only to a wealthy elite, with the less well-off priced out.
Looking back, the Committee observes that the EU's sustainability policy has been too narrowly focused on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption to enable a shift to sustainable consumption and production. "It is crucial not to lose sight of other aspects, such as water management, soil use or air pollution and the overall impact which products have on the environment", said Le Nouail Marlière.
The Committee's opinion places the issue of sustainable production and consumption in the context of a broader debate, calling for an overhaul of the economic model. The current model, which is based on a fixation with GDP indicators and geared towards generating ever more growth and demand, will not help to usher in a truly sustainable economy. The shift will require an open debate about a new economic model and additional indicators that measure not just output but also the environmental footprint, human well-being, social equity and prosperity.
Involving civil society at global, national and local level is crucial for a successful transition to a sustainable green economy. A transition of this kind can only succeed if sustainable consumption and production is seen by businesses, consumers and workers as an opportunity and a desirable objective.
In its opinion the Committee argues against splitting EU sustainable policy into too many different tools of unequal political importance, which weakens momentum and the drive for change. "Although the concept of sustainability features high on the political agenda, it is often neglected in practical policy", said the rapporteur.
European Economic and Social Committee