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Right Steps in the Right Direction at the Right Speed

Author: Sirpa Pietikäinen

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 thirteenth edition of Pathways to 2030 features Sirpa Pietikäinen, Honorary Chair of IEEP and MEP of Finland, discusses the ambition and goals required to achieve a more sustainable Europe. 

The biggest political challenge that both individual people and politicians face when making decisions is the need to first unlearn our old models of thinking. Only then can we perceive things differently, adopt new models of behaviour and generate new innovations. 

Our old perception is of a linear model of growth with limitless natural resources. All of our economic theory revolves around this impression of a boundless universe. 

We have to unlearn this very basic concept. We have to learn to understand, appreciate and preserve the limited amount of resources available to us and accept natural boundaries.

In our efforts to move towards sustainable development, we need to unlearn our perception of linear steps being sufficient. It is not necessarily helpful to go a bit faster if the direction we are going in is the wrong one. Case in point: global annual production of plastics grew from 2 million tons in 1950 to 381 million tons in 2015. It is expected to triple again by 2030. In this case, it is not enough to set a target of reducing our current production of plastic by 20%. With such a target, we will not, in real terms, end up reducing overall plastic production. Similarly, energy efficiency and slight reductions in emissions are not enough in themselves, if the number of buildings and cars is constantly increasing. 

Individual solutions determined in silos are also insufficient. For example, it is not a solution to slightly reduce the use of pesticides, when we need to overhaul the entire food production system. For sustainability, we need to consider food production, transportation, animal welfare and nutrition altogether. 

For successful systems thinking, we need to set the bar right. In 20 to 30 years, we need to reach the same level of production and wellbeing with one tenth of the resources we currently use, and with one tenth of the emissions. 

We need to move to a circular economy with upgradeable, modular, recyclable products and buildings, and zero waste. To support this aim, the Ecodesign Directive needs to be made to apply horizontally to all products. We need to ban all single-use plastics and replace plastics with alternative, bio-based, non-toxic materials, many of which are already available. We need to phase out harmful substances including endocrine disrupting chemicals. We need a textile strategy to address the questions related to the environmental impact, including water use, and the social aspects of much of the fashion industry.

Our climate strategy needs to be twice as ambitious as it currently is. By 2030, we should ban fossil fuels as an energy source and achieve carbon neutrality. Similarly but not as often recited, we need to halt the current threats facing biodiversity through targets and action that will make a genuine difference. 

Once we have set our goals, we need to work out the necessary steps to get there through back-casting. A comprehensive monitoring platform of indicators is needed so we can measure progress. Indicators will allow us to measure the consumption of energy, waste, raw materials, water as well as impact on biodiversity and emissions, among other priorities. Harmonised, compulsory sustainability indicators and life-cycle analysis need to be applied to both public and private sectors. These indicators need to be integrated into financial regulation, accounting and reporting. 

The achievement of the goals will not be possible without sustainable finance. It is the greatest revolution in the financial services since the introduction of double accounting. Sustainability considerations need to span through the entire financial services sector. Redirecting investments to sustainable purposes is a necessity but can only be effective if we simultaneously have a look at production and consumption and support the transformation of business models themselves. 

In all this lie challenges but also opportunities. It all begins with a realisation that what we have thought to be true until now is not true. We need to adapt to the new reality. Fast.

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.

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