3.1 Keynote by Daniel Montalvo, EEA
The presentation gave an overview of current efforts and whether these are sufficiently addressing the existential crises we face. In the last 200 years, humans have induced exponential change to a wide range of social and economic parameters, including world population, water use and real GDP. These trends are coupled with many parameters of the functioning earth systems that have experienced correlated exponential change, including atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, ocean acidification and terrestrial biosphere degradation. We are currently mainly in control of major geochemical cycles such as the carbon or nitrogen cycle. Our societal and economic patterns are strongly coupled to our earth systems, and it is this correlation we strive to decouple.
According to IPCC and other international institutions, our response and efforts to tackle the existential crises of nature and climate change are insufficient to abate the crises we face. To tackle these crises sufficiently, we need more considerable transformative changes. The connections between the environment and the health of citizens are another issue that has not received much attention but is emerging, according to OMS. We are already seeing irreversible changes and approaching tipping points beyond which the correlation between our societal behaviour and the functioning of the earth's systems is no longer within our control. There is a clear relation between how we process and turn resources into products and services in our economy - and climate change and nature loss. We must be aware of trade-offs and interconnections when we address the crisis.
There is no quick fix for sustainability transitions. We need to reconfigure our energy, food, mobility, and industrial systems and find more robust ways to provide the services that we need in our society. The conversation about relative and absolute decoupling provides some nuance to this discussion.
The below sections briefly discuss developments and the current situation in Europe within key policy areas relevant to the conference topic.
The EU have strong climate policies that have made a significant impact, but the progress varies across the different sectors of the economy; for instance, we have begun transforming our energy supply systems, but progress in the agricultural sector has long stagnated. We need to scale up and speed up with a factor of 3 if we are to reach the target for 2050, and for this to happen, we need a paradigm shift. In addition to emission reductions, it is necessary to sequester more carbon, so-called negative emissions – with, for example, industrial carbon capture (expensive and not yet at a sufficient scale) or biological carbon sequestration (requiring a changed relationship with the agricultural system and with our forestry sector.
Some progress and relative decoupling have been achieved, but waste and resource use is still correlated with economic growth. The European green deal has facilitated improved policies for the circular economy, but the systemic challenge of production and consumption systems remains. No substantial reduction has been achieved, and several planetary boundaries have already been breached when considering Europe’s fair share.
Looking at the current circular material use rate, which is the share of recycled materials over the total supply of materials to the economy, the trend is relatively flat and not living up to the 2030 aspiration.
Establishing a circular economy is not on track, so how do we progress towards a resilient and climate-neutral economy where resource use is low, recirculation of materials is high, and the material cycle is clean?