Connected self-sufficiency: A building block for EU 2030 scenario?

Leading up to IEEP's Think 2030 conference, experts express their views on Europe's most pressing sustainability issues in the Think 2030 blog series, Pathways to 2030. 

The twelfth edition of Pathways to 2030 features Domingo Jiménez Beltrán, Member of IEEP's Strategic Advisory Board who discusses the concept of Connected Self-Sufficiency in the EU.

Connected self-sufficiency implies that “we adjust to what we have, except justified need and then we get/exchange with the nearby sources”

Unfortunately, currently it is not a prevailing concept while it could become a building block for a sustainable EU 2030 Scenario as it is possible to replicate it at all the scales down to the local level. In fact it was at the basis of the Common Agricultural Policy and it is a guiding concept for the ongoing Energy Union and a wishful Common Energy Policy.

An outstanding feature of the urban-industrial society is the organisation of the production of goods and the provision of services in large systems that standardises processes and configures systems where production and consumption are integrated.

Thus, large systems are established that pursue and achieve high levels of productive efficiency, guarantee of supply and improvement of the management of the system as a whole whilst being an integrated system. They move quantities of mobile natural resources, normally finding the best buyer in the most developed countries.

This creates important inefficiencies in the use of resources, in their transport, and in the impacts associated with them (waste and pollution), since in geographically defined areas there is a high level of dependency of the system and lower resilience to changes.

However, areas with more strategic resources, more diversified economies, will be more self-sufficient in natural resources, more resilient and less affected by changes.

This process has been enhanced by globalisation creating significant inbalances between countries, the “global village”.

A main defect of the large systems and globalisation in general is consumption stimulation, due to the apparent lack of resource limit; only the price acts as a limiter, being determinant for the low or medium-low income level societies.

These economies of scale with a low level of self-sufficiency and high dependence, such as Spain with energy resources, determine greater vulnerability, in crises, which affect competitiveness and life quality.

The alternative to the large systems is connected self-sufficiency, CSS,  at lower scales, which adjusts the consumption to the available resources, creating a maximum approximation between production and consumption, reducing distribution costs and maximising the efficiency in the use of natural resources, increasing also resiliency and favoring ccompetitivity as exchanges will still  be required. The feasibility of this system is reinforced by two significant resources more accessible now - information provided by the digital economy and the energy provided by renewable sources.

The big challenge of climate change can become a big pusher to extend the application of the CSS concept as it can become a disruptive approach to faster progress and in a more inclusive way (participation of less developed countries). It has the capability to achieve the required de-energisation and dematerialisation needed to reach the decarbonidation of the economies needed to mitigate climate change.

Regarding energy this change is based on energy consumption reduction and massive incorporation of renewable energy sources. It is also based on greater electrification of the system and its distributed generation that allow renewable technologies, especially photovoltaic technologies which makes connected electric energy self –sufficient at all levels (house, city, region…) feasible and advantageous.

The change is based on the revision of the principle of organisation of the actual integrated system based on fossil fuels and centralised electric generation systems and replacing it with a much more electrified energy systems and   distributed electric generation from renewable sources. 

This change makes CSS a most useful concept of application at all levels, starting with dwellings, cities and ending with countries that can aspire with energy from renewable sources to generate energy equivalent to its consumption, although as far as possible in connected systems to have available external contributions or evacuate surpluses. The so-called "self-consumption with net balance" at dwellings level  is so disruptive that the former Spanish Government prompted by the Electric Companies imposed a ”sun tax” on the self-consumed energy to limit it, tax just removed by the actual Government to promote self-consumption

As energy from renewable source are available instead there is a greater rationalisation in the use and consumption of energy. In Spain, according to the Renewables Foundation, connected energy self-sufficiency (significant part in dwellings) could progress strongly to reach 50% in 2030, from the actual 20%, based on a reduction in energy consumption of more than 25%, doubling the electrification of final energy to 50% and with a share of 80% of renewables in the electric power generation.

Concerning water resources, the change implies the strict application of good management criteria to the integral water cycle and its hybridisation with the above mentioned energy system. This would allow an optimisation of this cycle (in many cases both may be limiting factors while energy is generally the determinant one) and generation of external resources, in particular in coastal areas by sea water desalination and progress towards the so much needed water supply connected self-sufficiency in particular in the Mediterranean regions. A yearly production of 1 millon cubic metres of high quality sea desalinated water only requires a 1MW from wind turbines or 2MW from photovoltaic plates in sunny and dry coastal areas.

Related to materials management, the principle of change to CSS is the application of the circular economy starting with "zero waste" transforming waste into resources with the simple association of a price to the waste expected from the processes of consumption of products or services. An example is the deposit systems considered in the now discussed Plastic Directive.

So if you are “connected self-sufficient“ enough in energy, water and materials in a well defined territory and have good access to the best available information and can therefore use effectively and efficiently the available capital and, the most important, the available human resources, there are all the chances to expand this CSS to other resources and have a good base for a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive economy in this territory. This would allow a shift from the “global village scenario” of depending territories to “the globe in every village” scenario of interconnected self-sufficient territories and bringing waste and pollution to a halt.

The question is how to make the CSS concept into a building block for the EU 2030 Scenarios. Here are some possible elements:

1- Introduce a more self-sufficient EU in natural resources, energy from renewable sources and materials as a main goal for EU 2030 and for each of the MSs including increased connectivity’s among them, electrical in particular, while not establishing it as a permanent flow but as a “just in case” and tending to net balance.

2- Build up and expand existing targets for the EU 2030 that contribute to this connected self-sufficiency goal. In particular in energy (Increase to more than 32% the share of renewable in final energy consumption and in  energy efficiency all building up to a new target of about 70% in energy self-sufficiency from the actual 50%) and others fields.

3-Screen existing initiatives in the three 2050 EU Roadmaps to identify actions and specific targets that can contribute to the connected self-sufficiency goal already by 2030 in particular under the 2011 “2050 Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe” (!) where there are a lot of them as milestones before 2030:

- “Waste managed as a resource. As an example, the EC already proposed as obliged by the significant impact of marine littering,  in the now discussed Directive for Single use Plastics that ”Member States will be obliged to collect 90% of single-use plastic drinks bottles by 2025, for example through deposit refund schemes”.

It is worth noting that Deposit Systems as advocated by the EC can achieve as shown in Germany more than 98% recycling for beverage containers and allow operational refilling. Turning or accompanying the obligation on results with efficient obligation of means as DSs (as already done on renewables) could achieve if extended to other applicable waste flows the desired goal of turning waste into resources and the wishful “zero waste“ target key for a more self-sufficient EU by 2030.

- “Natural capital and ecosystem services will be properly valued and accounted for by public authorities and businesses”,

- “The loss of biodiversity in the EU and the degradation of ecosystem services will be halted and, as far as feasible, biodiversity will be restored.”

- “Water abstraction should stay below 20% of available renewable water resources” (at every water basin?)

- “Land Use. EU policies take into account their direct and indirect impact on land use in the EU and globally, and the rate of land take is on track with an aim to achieve no net land take by 2050. The Commission will address before and in a permanent way the indirect land use change resulting notably from the renewable energy policy.”

- “Food. Incentives to healthier and more sustainable food production and consumption will be widespread and will have driven a 20% reduction in the food chain's resource inputs. Disposal of edible food waste should have been halved in the EU”.

- “Buildings and Infrastructures. The renovation and construction of buildings and infrastructure will be made to high resource efficiency levels. All new buildings will be nearly zero-energy and highly material efficient, and policies for renovating the existing building stock will be in place so that it is cost-efficiently refurbished at a rate of 2% per year. 70% of non-hazardous construction and demolition waste will be recycled.”

- “Efficient use of resources: Ambitious resource efficiency targets and robust, timely indicators will guide public and private decision-makers in the transformation of the economy towards greater resource efficiency”.

If only the steps mentioned were made and the EC initiatives identified were implemented before 2030, would not the EU had gone a long way towards connected self-sufficiency and to a more sustainable, resilient, socially inclusive EU economy?

Disclaimer: Views presented in this article do not necessarily represent the views of IEEP and are of the sole responsibility of the author. 

In partnership with GLOBE EU, IEEP is creating a new sustainability platform, Think 2030, which will convene a wide range of stakeholders to discuss and propose solutions to EU environmental challenges. A dedicated session on post-2020 EU biodiversity framework will be held on October 17 that will contribute to spur debate on these issues.