Author Archives: Michael Warhurst

12 years ago this week we persuaded MEPs to back a 50% recycling target, and helped kick off the EU’s circular economy debate

Back in 2007, MEPs were discussing a revision to the EU’s main waste law, the Waste Framework Directive. The proposal from the European Commission was distinctly unimpressive, focussing on tinkering with end of waste standards, and a three step waste hierarchy (with recycling, reuse and incineration on the same level!).

I was leading Friends of the Earth’s (FoE) Resource use team, and we were working with Melissa Shinn at the European Environment Bureau (EEB) to get this draft law amended so that it would actually drive the resources debate forward.

Twelve years ago this week (the 13th February 2007), the European Parliament was preparing to vote on its first reading position on this law. We had been talking to the Parliament’s Environment Committee and had persuaded them to back the normal five step waste hierarchy. However, we had failed to persuade them to take a bigger step, to back a 50% recycling target for municipal waste by 2020, which we had decided was a reasonable target for Europe to set.

Our focus was on the MEPs preparing to vote in Strasbourg… we had a banner, some nice valentines cards (see above – Win my heart with your vote, Stop the Waste!, Vote recycling not incineration!), and people from the EEB and FoE networks around the EU to have lots of conversations with MEPs around the parliament… and we won by a margin of 85 votes (384 to 299).

This wasn’t the end of the story of course, as EU Member States must also approve new laws, but after many more discussions and arguments, the law was adopted in 2008, including the 50% recycling target and a important commitment to review this target:

By 31 December 2014 at the latest, the Commission shall examine the measures and the targets referred to in paragraph 2 with a view to, if necessary, reinforcing the targets and considering the setting of targets for other waste streams“.

This review process was then used by then-Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik to kick off a proposed increase in recycling targets, including 70% of municipal waste by 2030, as part of his Circular economy initiative. The current Commission then withdraw this proposal and later re-tabled a new circular economy package, with a 65% by 2030 target, which is now EU law.

One lesson from this story is the way in which EU policy can build over time, allowing incremental improvements. A second is that civil society needs to continue to work on important environmental issues even when they are not trendy (as was the case with recycling in 2007), and such work can facilitate faster progress when an issue rises up the agenda again (as has happened with the ‘Circular Economy’).

These recycling targets affect environmental policies in all EU Member States, including the UK. The UK’s “Resources and Waste Strategy“, published in December 2018 has a nice timeline on page 13 which includes the 50% and 65% recycling targets, despite Brexit!

[I first posted this on linked in yesterday]

What is the EU and how does it work?

There’s currently a big debate in the UK in the run up to a referendum on EU membership on Thursday 23rd June 2016.

It’s clear from the debate so far that there is a fair amount of confusion about what the EU actually is, and how EU democracy works. I’ve been working on EU environmental policy for over 15 years, so I’ve got a fair bit of experience in how it works.

The EU is unique in the world, as it is both a free trade area but also a region with many common environmental and social standards. In order to do this the EU must agree laws and policies.

EU laws are agreed by a democratic process:

  • For most laws the European Commission proposes the law (usually after a request from governments), then the elected European Parliament and elected national governments discuss and agreeing the final shape of the law.
  • Secondary legislation – such as a ban on a specific pesticide – is usually done through a different procedure, where national governments have much more power than the European parliament.

Within the EU there is also the Eurozone, sharing a common currency. The Eurozone also has some specific governance structures, and the European Parliament has limited powers over it (which I think is probably a problem). The UK isn’t in the Eurozone.

It’s worth noting that elected national governments are the most powerful players at EU level. Each of these governments should be accountable to their populations, and to national parliaments.

In many areas only a ‘qualified majority‘ of national governments need to support a measure for it to happen. Unanimity is required for treaty changes, trade deals, enlargement allowing new countries into the EU etc. For example, all EU countries would have to support the accession of Turkey into the EU, or the signing of a trade deal like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Almost all enforcement of EU legislation occurs within the Member States., though a small number of regulations are enforced at EU level, notably competition law.

To learn more:

See the more detailed pages on this blog – What is the EU?How does the EU work? and How are laws created and enforced?

 

I started a web site on hormone disrupting chemicals 20 years ago….

In July 1995 – 20 years ago – I started a web site on hormone disrupting chemicals.

I’ve got a full backup of the site as it was on 5th September 1995 – here’s a pdf of the front page.

A later version of the web site was up until 2018, when TalkTalk stopped providing web space. However, the site is still available on the Internet Archive ‘Wayback Machine’ – here’s the pages as they were in March 2000. [This paragraph was updated in April 2019 to remove the original link & add a ‘wayback’ link].  Continue reading

Vote in the EU elections – and ask your friends & family to do the same

Don’t believe what you read in the newspapers or see on TV – the elections for the European Parliament really are important.

They aren’t just an opportunity to vote against the governing parties in your country – or to vote against European Union (EU) policies on austerity – or even against the EU itself. Continue reading

Window dressing vs reduced business risks and impacts – which to choose?

Companies have impacts – on people, on the environment – some positive, some negative. Sometimes the negative impacts become very obvious and very negative – for example when a textile factory in Bangladesh collapses. Sometimes the impacts are less visible, displacement of people from their land, discharge of toxic chemicals, or exploitation of fossil fuels.

There are many way of addressing these impacts, including direct legislation, standards & labelling. One approach that sounds promising at first sight – but is yet to really deliver – is company reporting: Continue reading

We need to change – but to what? and how fast?

“cognitive dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.”

We are living in a time of cognitive dissonance – on the one hand, many people (particularly in business) now realise that the economy can’t go on the way it is – with increasing climate changing emissions, pressure on resources and biodiversity – while at the same time taking the view that it’s not politically practical to do anything about it. Continue reading

A more democratic EU? Stop government secrecy!

In UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s EU speech this week he talked of the need to increase the EU’s “democratic accountability”.

One little known fact is that the most secretive and undemocratic piece of the EU is actually ‘Council’, EU Governments (Member States) – including the UK – getting together to decide their view on EU laws.

Council is one of the two decision making bodies of the EU, see this page for a quick explanation, the other being the European Parliament – the European Commission only proposes legislation.

For example, look at this document on the Council’s web site, where the main content of the document is:

“DELETED FROM THIS POINT UNTIL THE END OF PAGE 5 “

And this is not some obscure piece of legislation. This is the negotiations on a new law that would force European mining companies to disclose what they are paying governments around the world, part of a global campaign on transparency – see the “Publish What You Pay” campaign site for more details.

There are thousands of censored documents on the Council web site, many saying useful things like “one Member State said” “Several Member States said”. Governments around Europe are hiding what they are doing at EU level.

So, the electorate is not permitted to see what governments are up to. Sometimes complete documents – or rumours – leak out, but it is a closed, secretive process. These leaks probably also go more often to industry interests than to civil society ones.

Contrast this with the elected EU parliament, where you can see who tables which amendments, and where votes are open & often available in full (‘roll call votes’). This detailed information enables people like VoteWatch and environmental groups to monitor exactly what each MEP is up to. VoteWatch also tries to analyse government voting patterns, but its only data is the formal votes that happen at the end of a process, not the real debate on what governments will or won’t accept.

So is David Cameron’s ‘reform’ plan going to include openness for council?

Will the UK take a unilateral decision to open up all of its negotiation documents?

Let’s wait and see…

Europe must transform itself into a resource efficient economy – and 2013 is the year to work out how

On Friday I attended the second meeting of the high level “European Resource Efficiency Platform” (EREP). I’m Friends of the Earth Europe’s ‘Sherpa‘ in this process, assisting Friends of the Earth Europe’s Director, Magda Stoczkiewicz, who is currently on maternity leave.

EREP was set up by the European Commission in summer 2012, and is made up of a diverse range of organisations organisations including the German and Danish Environment Ministers, Siemens, Unilever, the European Trades Unions Congress and UNEP.

The meeting on Friday agreed a “Manifesto for a Resource Efficient Europe“, which concludes that Europe must transform itself into a “resource-efficient and ultimately regenerative circular economy”. The manifesto also emphasises the importance of setting targets to reduce Europe’s resource use.

In my view the manifesto is an important start, and now we need to see real, specific, policy proposals emerging in 2013. The platform has already identified a good set of priorities, for these policy proposals, and it’s due to come out with specific proposals in a report in June 2013.

Targets are particularly important in my view, as there is massive evidence that targets are an effective way of creating change. In addition, there are a lot of easy wins around, notably in waste policy where there are also very substantial gains to be made by stopping burying and burning of any waste that could be recycled or composted.

We’re going to have a busy first half of 2013 trying to agree some substantive and effective policy proposals….

For more information on Friends of the Earth Europe’s work on Resource Efficiency, see:

http://www.foeeurope.org/resources

Measuring to manage: Commission launches consultation on measuring our use of resources

Ever thought it was strange that we measure – and try to reduce – our climate changing emissions, yet we don’t do the same with our resource use? In fact, there isn’t even general agreement on how to measure our use of resources.

This could be about to change though, as the European Commission’s Environment department have launched a consultation on “Options for resource efficiency indicators” – it’s available here. This is part of the Commission’s wider focus on resource efficiency, led by Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik.

I warmly welcome this consultation, as we identified this as important issue some years ago, and at Friends of the Earth Europe we’ve been working to solve this problem. The four indicators of resource use that we identified in this work are now proposed by the Commission in this consultation, which is a very positive step:

  • Overall material use – how much material do we use, from wherever in the world it originates
  • Land footprint – how much land we use, again from wherever it comes from in the world (e.g. the land used to grow soy in Paraguay to feed to chickens in Europe)
  • Water footprint – the water used to make products
  • Carbon footprint – the greenhouse gases released.

This is an important step forward, as the resources debate has been dominated by an academic argument between those who want to just measure the tonnes of stuff we use – maybe even just within Europe – and those who want everything to be translated into environmental impact. The former is too narrowly focussed, the latter is probably largely unachievable at an economy-scale, for example:

  • What is the environmental impact of a tonne of wood? Is that wood from a plantation, or rainforest? What species? How much of the forest is left?

We believe that the four indicators above, taken together, give a vital tool to measure and manage our resource use – at product level, company level or at national or EU level. Many companies are already looking at their carbon footprint and water footprint – and identifying substantial reductions in resource use & economic savings. We believe that this approach can assist in making Europe more resource efficient – something that is economically very important in these troubled times.

The proposals in the consultation aren’t perfect – it’s unclear what the Commission proposes to do by when, and whether they will go with the data that is already available (e.g. see this presentation of mine), or delay considering the implications of our resource use until they have gathered ‘perfect’ statistical data.

The Consultation was launched on 26th July & closes on 22nd October – Friends of the Earth Europe will be producing a consultation response towards the end of the consultation period. For more information on our work on resource use, see this page on the Friends of the Earth Europe site.

Land – so important, yet so ignored….

People have been talking about resource use for years – we use too much, we don’t distribute it equitably, things are getting more expensive, running out, etc etc etc.

The thing that puzzles me is that these conversations tend to be about materials – in general, or specific materials (oil, metals, rare earths etc) – and most of the time a key natural resource is ignored – land.

It’s blindingly obvious that land is a limited resource – as Mark Twain said “Buy Land, they’re not making it anymore”. Across the world the pressure on land is increasing – from increasing demand for food (particularly meat & dairy), from the increasing use of biofuel and biomass as an energy source, and from growing urbanisation.

Land is obviously crucial to biodiversity – but it is also intimately  linked to people’s rights, history and incomes. The growing demand for land – combined with financial speculation – is creating a massive increase in land disputes, as companies and governments try to gain control of land.

This is leading to deaths and imprisonments of local people, for instance 17 people were killed in June 2012 during a police-led eviction of peasant farmers in Paraguay. This was followed by the arrest of a local person who was working with Friends of the Earth, though he was later released following international pressure  (see Friends of the Earth International news story)

And yet, land just doesn’t seem to be front of mind when many people talk about resource use. For example, the UK Environment Ministry DEFRA has just launched a consultation on “Guidance for Business on Key Environmental Performance Indicators“. As you might expect, this includes measuring climate emissions, waste, material use, even water – but what about land?

Well, land use change gets a mention in the section on biodiversity, but not beyond this, in spite of the fact that scale of land use is so important as companies make decisions on bio-based materials and feedstocks – or even what to food to serve. Yet measuring impacts on biodiversity is much more difficult than measuring scale of land use.

There is a straightforward way to measure and manage the amount of land required by a company, an economy, or to produce an individual product – it’s called Land Footprint. This is a really straightforward measurement of  the real area of land required, in hectares. It doesn’t tell you everything, but it does work very well as a top-level metric, which facilitates further analysis (e.g. looking at where the land is, why we are using that land etc). If you want to know the land footprint of EU countries, see our report on “Europe’s land import dependency”.

For more about land footprint, see this talk I gave to a conference organised by the European Commission on soil sealing in May 2012.

We’ll be asking DEFRA – and indeed the European Commission – to make sure that future policies on environmental reporting & resource use do include land. We’d welcome the same message coming from other people and organisations too!!