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EU’s new industrial strategy fails to square the circle of sustainability

Despite fine words about the importance of renewable energy and the circular economy, the European Commission’s revised Industrial Strategy fails to provide a viable blueprint for a truly green industrial transition based on circularity and binding targets, writes the EEB’s Davide Sabbadin.

Last week, the European Commission published its revised Industrial Strategy, which aims to tackle the EU’s dependencies in terms of supply chains and critical raw materials, and contains measures which aim to accelerate the green and digital transitions.

The hope that the strategy would be radically different to the one presented in 2020 was very low in the environmental community but, in many ways, the document fails to meet even these low expectations.

Circular logic

Renewable energy and green hydrogen can only go so far towards making European industry climate neutral. Without considerably reducing resource use, the EU’s transition to a circular economy is little more than a pipedream.

The updated strategy is a step forward, as it recognises the march towards circularity as being at the heart of the decarbonisation transformation for all industrial value chains. At first, this sounds like music to the ears of environmentalists, but the beat radically changes when the document moves on to analyse how to reinforce Europe’s industrial and strategic autonomy.

But the strategy fails to ask to the most important question of all: is the linear, resource-hungry European economy that brought us into this crisis the economy we want to rebuild?          

Remarkably, the securing of raw materials and rare elements that are critical for ICT and renewable energy technologies, among others, is never framed in the context of bringing our economy within planetary limits. Instead, it is presented as an issue of strategic economic importance, while the environmental consequences of mining and consuming these resources is relegated to an afterthought.

Zero pollution

Another significant missing piece of the puzzle is the one linking the climate with European industrial emissions. As the revision progresses of the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), which regulates pollutant levels in EU industry, one would have expected to find a mention in the strategy of the relevant role that best available techniques, the benchmark tools of the IED, can play in decarbonising and depolluting our economy.

But the strategy makes no mention of the IED, as though the transformation needed to depollute our industry runs on parallel rails to the one needed to achieve climate neutrality, despite the fact that the two tracks are interlinked, and both are objectives promoted by the European Green Deal.

By failing to provide a broader framework, the Industrial Strategy is a missed opportunity to integrate the EU’s climate and pollution policies. Through the IED, the EU should outline in concrete terms what is meant by real breakthrough innovation, such as by setting minimum requirements for the decarbonisation and depollution of industrial processes, in particular for energy-intensive sectors.

Moreover, to fully achieve the European Green Deal goals the industrial transformation must go beyond technical feasibility measures: transformative actions must be extended through the value chain and engage skilled workforces, new business models based on quality, rethinking products as services, improving eco-design and transparency.

Poor governance

Lastly, the strategy contains no governing or reporting mechanism. To monitor and correct the course of action, there must be a course to refer to and compare against. The Industrial Strategy, once again, fails to put in place a detailed blueprint, with intermediary objectives and clear carbon neutrality targets, for the different industrial sectors.

The revised Industrial Strategy also fails to define a more general framework to achieve the European Green Deal’s objectives and does not put in place a steering mechanism that can ensure that all efforts carried out within these pathways are aligned with both the pace of action that is required and fair burden-sharing among the different sectors of the economy.

This leaves the strategy with a wealth of good but vague intentions and absolutely zero means to measure them or adjust them to the speed of climate change. This means that the strategic vision that is meant to lead European industry out of the troubled water of crisis into a climate and pollution-proof future is not fit for purpose.


* Davide Sabbadin is a Policy Officer for Climate and Circular Economy at the EEB.