Robert Ashcroft
October 2014

The end of a green Europe? The term of Janez Potočnik

The five year term of the current European Commission officially draws to a close on the 31st October 2014.  As the EU policy cycle renews with the influx of new Commissioners, it is a good time to take stock, review the progress that has been made, and think about the challenges ahead.  The EU has a strong history of promoting environmental protection and has the potential to be a political space for the development of progressive environmental policy which is underpinned by sound science.  Developing environmental protection legislation (Directives), setting sustainability targets, and as a discourse leader regarding Europe's growth strategy, the EU and European environmental policy now have a significant impact on the work of many environmental professionals.   Recognising the importance of this issue to many of our members and other environmental science professionals, this post will be the first in a short series of Analysis articles entitled The end of a green Europe?, reviewing the changes currently underway in the European Commission and what this may mean for environmental policy over the coming years.

Heading DG Environment through a challenging period, outgoing Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik has been generally well received by environmental professionals, scientists and campaigners with his drive to mainstream environmental concerns in economic policy and his recent call for a ‘New Environmentalism’.  As his term comes to an end, we review the key achievements of his term in office.

Janez Potočnik is an economist by background and held several academic posts in Slovenia before moving into European politics.  He was appointed as Member for Slovenia of the European Commission in May 2004 and in his first mandate acted as Commissioner for Science and Research.  In February 2010 he began his second mandate as Environment Commissioner.  He has since gone on to arguably become one of the world’s most successful environmental politicians.

When Dr Potočnik took over this position, shortly after the financial crash, the green economy agenda was suffering.  Perhaps in part due to the political and economic context of this early period, one of the major themes of Potočnik’s term at DG Environment became mainstreaming environmental concerns, or ‘greening’ other policy areas.  In an interview given by the outgoing Commissioner, he suggests that the greatest achievement of his current mandate has been the reconciliation of “economic development with environmental preservation".  Several initiatives pushed through by DG Environment during Janez Potočnik’s time in charge back up this claim.  These schemes seem to stem from the view, consistently advocated by the Commissioner, that for Europe to continue to grow sustainably we need to promote a ‘circular economy’, a restorative system where waste is minimised and reuse maximised to promote jobs and economic growth sustainably.

One of the first major developments of the Potočnik term at DG Environment was the publication in 2011 of The Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe.  This was a Commission Communication which outlined a vision of how the sustainability of Europe’s economy could be drastically enhanced by 2050.  This vision focuses on how policies and policy areas are interlinked and proposes ways in which, with targeted policy action, resource productivity could be enhanced, to the end that economic growth could ultimately be decoupled from resource use and environmental impact.  This was a highly significant document, establishing resource efficiency as a flagship of the Europe 2020 strategy for economic growth over the next decade.  This initiative was set up by Commission President José Manuel Barroso in 2010, and by outlining a framework to achieve sustainable growth as part of this programme, Potočnik and his colleagues made a vitally important step in linking the environmental agenda with the economic growth imperative which had previously dominated European politics.  Although no guarantee of implementation, this first step towards mainstreaming environmental concerns in the European policy arena sent an important message about changing priorities in Europe.

This mainstreaming has been a theme throughout Potočnik’s term in office.  In late 2013, Eurostat, the EU statistics agency, launched The Resource Efficient Europe Scoreboard, a database of indicators to track the performance of Member States and the EU-28 towards efficiency targets.  One of Potočnik’s key messages as he leaves the Commission is that in order to provide all actors clear objectives and ensure coordinated action at national and European levels “we need to have a clear and communicable target for resource efficiency within the Europe 2020 strategy” (as quoted on in October 2014).  In the Circular Economy Package proposed by the Commission in July it is argued that 'Raw Material Consumption to GDP' would be a valuable indicator to employ when developing future targets, but Potočnik emphasises that the new Commission will need to decide whether to act on this proposal in the Europe 2020 Review planned for May 2015.

In January 2014, during the final year of his mandate, Potočnik and DG Environment launched the 7th Environment Action Programme, which is designed to guide European environmental policy until 2020, based on an ambitious vision for the EU in 2050: 

"In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society."

This vision reflects the principles Potočnik has championed throughout his term at the Commission.  The significant steps made to link sustainability and resource efficiency to economic growth and to mainstream environmental awareness in EU policy are remarkable achievements and form an impressive legacy.  However, the real impact of Janez Potočnik’s work in environmental terms may depend on the ability of future Commissioners and Member State officials to implement and enforce these policies over the longer term.