Reindustrialising Europe: Can Big Business Lead the Way to a Greener Europe?

The economic crisis has created increasing unemployment, political turmoil, and uncertainty about the future shape of Europe. As governments attempt to rebuild their economies and create long-term jobs and growth, now is a perfect opportunity to respond to the economic, social, and environmental crises together. The European Green Party are proposing a policy which tackles all three crises, reducing inequalities between and among societies while living within the physical limits of the planet: the Green New Deal (GND). The GND combines macro-economics, with green industrialisation and greater social inclusiveness. This was the basis for a public conference hosted by the Green Party: Reindustrialising Europe – The Green Way.

The first debate, and the topic of this blog, focused on the role of industry and big business in greening the economy. The panel was chaired by Reinhard Bütikofer, MEP, and consisted of representatives from Bosch, Unilever, and DSM, a science-based company providing working in the health, nutrition and materials areas, who outlined what their companies were doing to become greener and how the relationship between governments, industry, and consumers could further these efforts.

In 2010 Unilever created their Sustainable Living Plan setting out targets in areas such as improving health and hygiene and reducing their environmental impact. Although only two years into the ten year plan, they have already made some significant improvements. For example, 70 percent of water used in their new factory in Durban, South Africa, is reused and this is supplemented by rainwater collected from the factory roof. Bosch is making similar moves towards greening their industry. The group files 16 patents each day, and much of their focus in this area is, therefore, on technology which can support a green industry. Internal targets include reducing fuel consumption in car engines by 30 percent by 2015 and making houses which contribute more energy than they consume. DSM’s sustainability plans combine more value with less environmental impact and products which have a measureable positive impact on the lives of their consumers.

All three companies are changing, often drastically, their business models and products into greener, more sustainable, industry. However, they do not represent the whole of industry in Europe, and there is certainly more they could do. Most big business is not doing enough and we cannot rely on them. The momentum has to come from somewhere else.

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Sylvie Lemmet – Director of Technology, Industry and Economics at the United Nations Environment Programme and keynote speaker for the conference – stressed the need for strict and consistent targets for achieving green industry. The industry representatives agreed that binding targets which were ambitious but not unobtainable were crucial for spurring industry into action. These targets need to be set at all levels of industry in order to create real systemic change from the sourcing of materials to the final product.

So, who should set these targets, and who should be expected to meet them? The focus of the conference was, of course, the European Union. However, the panel was asked whether, as the issue of climate change and resource scarcity was a universal one, it should be tackled at a global level. It is true that the whole world is facing the effects of climate change, but this does not mean that a single global approach would work.

The most obvious difficulty is that Europe is much more progressive on environmental issues than the rest of the world. Any universal policy would therefore be a step back from what could be achieved at European level. Secondly, different continents face different challenges. Europe is less abundant in some natural resources than other parts of the world but has a much stronger political will for change than, for example, the USA.

This brings up another important difference in approach: that between the developed and developing worlds. Europe has had the loudest voice in the global discussions on climate change and resource scarcity. However, the continent, along with the rest of the developed world, has contributed much more to our environmental problems than poorer nations as well as being materially much better off. Europe should, therefore, not simply do what we can. We must accept our greater role in the damage done to our environment and take on much more responsibility for combating these issues while supporting the developing world in progressing sustainably, thereby avoiding further damage to the environment.

The EU can, and should, work with industry to bring the change we need in Europe. However, national and regional differences cannot be ignored. There are huge variations between Member States: environmentally, socially, and economically. These have to be considered when targets are set and policies are formed.

The role of industry is not just about meeting targets. As Reinhard Bütikofer highlighted in his closing remarks, in a perfect market we could leave the initiative to industry but this is not the case in Europe. In order to reindustrialise Europe and create a green economy there needs to be joint leadership between industry, governments (local, national, and EU), NGOs, academics and consumers. We all have a role to play, and we must work together to make a Europe which is more socially equal, creates long-term sustainable industry, and respects our environment.

About Cat Hellewell

Cat is a Programme Assistant on Criminal Justice and the EU Multiannual Financial Framework at the Quaker Council for European Affairs.
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