When less is more: reducing Europe’s material footprint

Beyond cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the key to a sustainable planet lies in resource management.

This article was written by Diego Marin, and was originally published by Social Europe.

Since the Paris Agreement almost a decade ago, there has been a major increase in attention to climate change: more than 5,000 climate laws and policies have been adopted around the world to limit global heating. In 2019, the European Union’s Green Deal was launched ‘to reconcile the economy with our planet, to reconcile the way we produce, the way we consume with our planet and to make it work for our people’.

Yet we are extremely far from this vision. Despite political initiatives and increased scientific understanding of the threats at hand, global greenhouse-gas emissions continue to riseextreme weather and climate disasters are happening more frequently and the world is witnessing unprecedented biodiversity loss. In the words of the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, the latest assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is ‘code red for humanity’.

deeply troubling discovery is that global temperatures may have already surpassed the 1.5C rise since preindustrial times identified as the preferred ceiling in the agreement and could cross the 2C threshold within the next ten years. According to the European Environmental Agency’s climate risk assessment, Europe is the fastest-warming continent in the world. Rising temperatures will cause southern Europe to become arid, leading to crop failure and reduced water availability—indeed this is already happening. These conditions will also result in soil becoming compacted, increasing the risk of sudden floods, while the drying out of vegetation will accelerate the spread of wildfires.

Resource extraction

According to the International Resource Panel, the world is in the midst of a triple planetary crisis: of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution and waste. Yet while much attention has been paid to reduction of greenhouse gases, resource extraction has been far less in focus. The evidence is however clear: 90 per cent of global biodiversity loss and water stress, 55 per cent of global emissions and over 40 per cent of the health impacts of air pollution are caused by resource extraction and processing.

What is worse, this consumption of resources is unevenly distributed. If we consider the fourth planetary crisis linked to global social inequality, the injustice is blatantly obvious: the 1.2 billion poorest people account for just 1 per cent of the world’s consumption, while the one billion richest account for 72 per cent.

The material footprint of a country or region is the total amount of fossil fuels, biomass, metals and minerals consumed (adjusted to include those embodied in imports and exclude those embodied in exports). It is mass-based and usually defined in the EU in tonnes per capita. Most climate action addresses only the fossil-fuels component while overlooking the other three.

In 2022, the EU’s raw-material footprint rose to 14.8 tonnes per head on average—which is double a just and sustainable level—with only eight member states performing better. Since the late 2000s, the only times EU consumption of raw materials has significantly decreased were following the 2008 financial crash and the onset of the pandemic. It cannot be right to depend on socially disastrous events to decrease our material footprint, rather than achieving this through democratic and targeted political measures.

‘Decoupling’ growth?

Climate legislation has been effective to some extent in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and avoiding even greater ecological catastrophes. Some analysts claim that the ‘decoupling’ of economic growth from emissions is happening across many countries, with some achieving absolute decoupling (reduced emissions, not just a reduced rate of increase). When we include the material footprint, however, there has been no evidence of even relative decoupling of gross domestic product so far (see chart).

Relative change in the main global economic and environmental indicators from 1970 to 2018 (Source: European Environmental Agency).

The European Climate Law and the Green Deal represent significant strides towards the EU’s sustainability. But they fail to make the connections between the climate crisis and other escalating global concerns: biodiversity loss, pollution, resource depletion, human-rights abuses, increasing inequality and stagnating wellbeing.

The EU has also implemented the Circular Economy Action Plan. Associated legislative proposals and legal instruments are not however aimed at reducing resource use and there are no binding targets to drive down material consumption. The plan also does not prioritise the highest echelon of the waste hierarchy—minimising the need for additional products or resources in the first place through better systems design.

Linear model

According to the European Environmental Agency, Europe still largely operates under a linear model. It suggests that achieving a significant reduction in waste generation by 2030 is unlikely, highlighting the need for more comprehensive and systemic changes.

In an open letter, by more than 100 signatories, including non-governmental organisations, academics and think tanks, are calling for an EU Sustainable Resource Management Law to systematise resource management—just as the climate law has done for greenhouse-gas emissions. This is the means to drive the EU towards a less material‑intensive economy with roles for the union and member states actively to reduce their material footprints. It would allow flexibility for national implementation and involve citizens and workers.

Targets envisaged include reducing the EU’s material footprint to five tonnes per capita by 2050 from the current 14.8, with interim targets for 2030 and 2040. National targets would be developed considering specific country contexts.

The EU and its member states can commit to developing strategies to achieve these targets, focusing on high-consumption sectors. These would align with the net-zero and circularity targets, ensuring a holistic and mutually reinforcing approach to environmental challenges.

Prioritising sufficiency

An EU resource law could bolster resource efficiency while prioritising sufficiency. This approach would strengthen the union’s resilience by streamlining infrastructure and curtailing excessive energy consumption. It could also reduce Europe’s reliance on energy imports, thereby alleviating global pressures fuelling armed conflicts around the world.

The law would decrease demand for materials such as critical minerals too, reducing mining pressures in third countries as well as in Europe. Perhaps even more importantly, it would help safeguard Europe’s water resources, preventing potential conflicts over its use and enhancing water security.

Imagine if cities were not only designed for decarbonisation through private electric vehicles, but rather focused on dematerialisation by designing more bicycle lanes and green spaces and making the city more walkable—all good for businesses and wellbeing. By 2050, more than two-thirds of Europeans will be living in cities, so it is important to design climate-resilient and people-centred urban areas.

Workers’ rights

Reducing resource use can also be connected with workers’ rights and leisure—time to spend with one’s family, pursue a hobby and engage in low-impact activities. As mental health continues to deteriorate in an overworked and increasingly precarious European society, reduced working hours can not only contribute to workers’ wellbeing but have a positive impact on families, the economy and the environment.

In one study of more than 10,000 people in 29 high- and middle-income countries, 70 per cent of respondents concurred that ‘overconsumption is putting our planet and society at risk’ and 65 per cent agreed that ‘our society would be better off if people shared more and owned less’. Many European citizens have developed concrete initiatives which are already putting this vision into practice.

It is time for the EU to establish the appropriate policy framework to allow such initiatives to thrive. They can help it keep within planetary boundaries, foster a healthy population and promote global peace. Sustainable resource use is the crucial ingredient for a habitable and more peaceful planet.