Official Journal of the European Union

C 128/18

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Outlook for the sustainable development strategy’

(exploratory opinion)

(2010/C 128/04)

Rapporteur: Mr EHNMARK

On 18 March 2009, the European Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the

Outlook for the sustainable development strategy

(exploratory opinion).

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 13 October 2009.

At its 457th plenary session held on 4 and 5 November 2009 (meeting of 5 November 2009) the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 178 votes to 21 with 18 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1.   The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) welcomes the Commission's biennial progress report on the EU strategy for sustainable development (1). The report provides a basis for the continuing debate on how the EU should implement its sustainable development strategy.

1.2.   The EESC endorses the Commission's suggestion that in the next period the strategy should prioritise action on four main themes – the low carbon economy, protecting biodiversity, water and other natural resources, promoting social inclusion and strengthening the international dimension of sustainable development. The Committee regrets however that the Commission has not developed further its analysis and made specific proposals for targets, timetables and actions in these areas.

1.3.   It is clear that, despite one or two moves in the right direction, the EU sustainable development strategy (EU SDS) is, in its current form, failing to meet its targets.

1.4.   To be effective, the EU SDS needs an entirely new structure of governance, including an adequate level of staffing and finance, and appropriate mechanisms for verifying implementation of the strategy.

1.5.   The EESC would also like to see better coordination within the Commission, possibly supported by a commissioner with responsibility for coordination. The Committee also recommends the establishment of a high level independent Committee charged with monitoring the progress of sustainable development on a regular basis and making public recommendations to the institutions.

1.6.   The Committee urges the Council and the Commission to make the EU SDS a meta-strategy for all EU policies. All other EU strategies with shorter timeframes must feed into the targets of any future EU SDS. Many policies adopted today will have repercussions for decades to come. Measures effective in the short term must not compromise the development opportunities of future generations.

1.7.   In this opinion, the EESC identifies a need for better coordination between the Lisbon strategy and the strategy for sustainable development. In drawing up the new Lisbon or 2020 Strategy the Commission should be requested to demonstrate explicitly how the actions to be proposed in that strategy will support the long term transition to a more sustainable pattern of development. The future financial perspectives, the structural funds, the CAP, the R and D framework programmes and all other major strategies and programmes at European level should similarly be required to demonstrate how they are advancing SD Strategy objectives and targets.

1.8.   In its current form, GDP can no longer be used as a key policymaking yardstick. Progress and human wellbeing should be measured differently than has been the case up to now. The Committee wholeheartedly backs the ongoing development and practical application of progress indicators that go beyond GDP. In that connection, a discussion is also needed about the values the EU wishes to promote.

1.9.   Sustainable development calls for commitment and work at grassroots level. Building such commitment calls for active cooperation from all the social partners, and from all civil society organisations.

1.10.   Explicit responsibility must be assumed by policymakers to ensure that the strategy for sustainable development is implemented. This applies at European, national and local level, with the European Parliament also playing a definite role. The Committee recommends the establishment of machinery for stocktaking by the Commission of national progress against agreed indicators, followed by country specific guidance on key issues requiring attention. This could be modelled on the mechanism successfully established for monitoring progress on the Lisbon agenda.

1.11.   The EESC regrets the Commission's failure to consult the EESC and other organisations on the report before formulating its proposals, whereas the text adopted by the Council calls for just such consultation. It would have been particularly important to ascertain the views of civil society organisations. The Committee has strengthened its own integrating capacity on sustainable development issues by the establishment of its Sustainable Development Observatory three years ago, and this body has in turn established regular consultation with national Sustainable Development Councils. The Committee recommends that this machinery should be used more systematically to ensure a creative civil society input to updating and monitoring progress on sustainable development in Europe.

1.12.   It is particularly important to have a well-functioning EU SDS in time for the next World Summit on sustainable development in Rio in 2012.

2.   The Commission Communication

Unfortunately, the European Commission communication (COM(2009) 400 final, 24 July 2009). on the further evolution of the sustainable development strategy only represents a modest step forward. While it does highlight the shortcomings in moves to implement the EU SDS targets, it fails to suggest any effective measures to overcome these shortcomings in future.

2.1.1.   The EESC would recall, in this context, that it was precisely the question of clear political signals which was one of the leitmotifs of the consultations with the Commission, the Council and the Parliament.

2.1.2.   Decisions on political signals require good preparation. The EESC regrets the fact that the Commission was unable to allocate more than marginal resources to developing the basis for this year's preparation of policy on sustainable development.

2.2.   The Commission document provides a series of snapshots of the progress made with regard to the seven priority areas and the cross-cutting themes. This is a valuable exercise which shows both where greater priority must be given and where there is a need for in-depth analysis.

2.3.   The text shows that the reported developments are almost entirely unsatisfactory. Much attention has been paid to climate and energy issues over the past few years, but the results on the whole continue to be poor. Transport is another sphere where policy has not succeeded in reversing the trend towards increased emissions. Overall, examples of success can be found only in isolated measures - a promising legislative proposal or innovative initiative - but there is no consistent trend that would turn the situation around.

2.4.   The EESC does not intend to comment on the Commission's schematic evaluation of each policy area, but would just note that the Commission's exposition makes for discouraging reading. The result underscores the need for more serious policy efforts in relation to sustainable development.

2.5.   Sustainable production and consumption have had high priority for a number of years now. Another example is the use of raw materials in production. Statistics show that the EU and the US use double the amount of raw materials per unit of product than, for example, Japan. This is an area where there is considerable potential for efficiency gains through rationalisation.

2.6.   The Commission gives specific priority to efforts to incorporate the social dimension and social issues in both the sustainable development strategy and other current EU development strategies (Lisbon strategy, etc.). The importance of these efforts is illustrated by the fact that more than 70 million Europeans live in poverty (according to the definition used by, inter alia, the EU's statistical office). The connection between migration issues and developments in the numbers living in poverty is a key question.

3.   A strategy in crisis?

3.1.   Sustainable development policy was launched at the Rio de Janeiro conference almost 20 years ago. The message of that summit was clear and convincing: live in a way that does not encroach on the living conditions of the generations that follow. The conclusions of the Johannesburg summit (UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002). ten years later met with a strong response: here at last was a comprehensive package of proposals for equitable worldwide social development.

3.2.   As part of the preparations for the Johannesburg summit, the EU adopted its first European Sustainable Development Strategy (COM(2001) 264 final, A Sustainable Europe for a Better World: A European Union Strategy for Sustainable Development).

3.3.   The EU's strategy for sustainable development was adopted in spring 2001 in an atmosphere of euphoria. It was not until some years later that the picture began to look more complicated.

3.4.   It is not that there was anything wrong with the strategy per se, and there was no shortage of enthusiastic supporters among civil society players and among politicians and opinion-formers.

3.5.   The problem was more a lack of real will (or ability) to start implementing the visions in a concrete action programme.

3.6.   The sustainable development strategy was revised in 2006 through the Review of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy – Renewed Strategy. The review shed no more light on the issues relating to priorities and implementing processes. The EU was at the same time developing new programmes on, for instance, economic growth and job creation.

3.7.   In the past few years tension has become manifest between the vision for sustainable development and the programmes for growth and competitiveness. What divides them is, for instance, the timeframe: whereas the Lisbon strategy has a medium-term perspective, sustainable development looks to the longer term. This may result in priority being given to measures under the Lisbon strategy that are effective in the short term but that run counter to the long-term sustainability targets.

3.8.   There is an increasing body of opinion in favour of reviewing the way tasks are allocated between the two strategies. Merging the strategies could be a way of securing the more effective application of the earmarked resources.

3.9.   The purpose of this report is however to demonstrate the need to revive the sustainable development strategy, so as to provide a potential roadmap for efforts both in Europe and globally.

4.   What lessons have we learnt?

4.1.   Over the past few years, the Committee has adopted at least ten opinions on various aspects of the strategy, as well as outlines of how the strategy could be developed. The gist of these was that sustainable development and the Lisbon strategy should be developed in a coordinated way, even if they fall under separate headings (2).

4.2.   The EESC has identified three factors that together can be said to explain why the effects of the strategies have diverged:

One reason is their : the Lisbon strategy responds to immediate policy issues, whereas sustainable development addresses the question of long-term priorities. The difference can also be seen as a question of sponsors: whereas Lisbon is backed by the heads of state or government, sustainable development is often managed by the ministers for the environment. This difference in emphasis is also reflected in the allocation of resources: in both the Commission and in the Member States, substantially fewer staff are working on the SDS than on the Lisbon strategy.

to each strategy: the Lisbon strategy may not be familiar, but it is at least close to becoming familiar in fairly wide circles, whereas sustainable development is seen as theoretical and difficult to relate to practical political action.

: the Lisbon strategy has a rigorous system for planning and monitoring, with common standards and calendars, while sustainable development has a looser arrangement which involves adopting common priorities and joint evaluation. As a result, the Lisbon strategy can exert stronger pressure on the Member States, whereas the sustainable development strategy is more about producing general intentions.

4.3.   The most recent comprehensive assessment of the sustainable development strategy was carried out before its revision in 2006. In the revised guidelines for the strategy, the Council emphasised the fundamental importance of strengthening cooperation and coordination between national and European efforts in relation to sustainable development. It was considered particularly important to develop clear priorities for work on sustainable development. An evaluation in the run-up to the Commission's 2008 biennial report also noted that progress had been made within ‘areas of product lifecycle thinking and minimising waste’, and in a large number of initiatives relating to environmental protection (Progress on EU Sustainable Development Strategy, Final Report, ECORYS).

4.4.   It is important to note that coordination between the Structural Funds and the sustainable development strategy has not been developed very far. The sustainability of investments must be given top priority, not least in areas where the EU has major financial input.

5.   Revitalising the sustainable development strategy: some perspectives

5.1.   The EU has played a crucial role in developing global approaches to sustainable development. Many countries and regional blocs see the EU as a pioneer in the sphere of sustainable development. If the EU can also take the initiative in revitalising the sustainable development strategy, much ground will have been gained.

5.2.   One of the many problems with the strategy in its current form is the large number of priorities: seven key challenges and four cross-cutting themes. Probably if the strategy had clearer priorities it would have more impact. The EU's sustainable development strategy also needs clear and quantifiable targets if it is to have greater impact.

5.3.   Moreover, we can no longer shy away from the fact that, despite the three pillars underpinning sustainable development, not all measures can always be equally beneficial from environmental, social and economic perspectives. Not all situations can be 'win-win-win'. Rather, we need to set priorities, and this often means making painful choices. In the past, priorities too often emphasised short-term economic interests. Unfortunately, this tendency is once again reflected in the restructuring programmes in the current economic crisis.

5.4.   The public sector must play an important and leading role in promoting sustainability. Decision makers can give a major boost to sustainability through legislation, tax incentives and subsidies (including the elimination of harmful subsidies), and through public procurement procedures.

5.5.   The new financial perspective starting in 2014 must be geared towards the targets of the future sustainability strategy.

5.6.   The EU's sustainable development strategy must tackle the problem of harmful subsidies. The EESC urges the Commission to finally submit its roadmap for the reform of harmful subsidies, which has been overdue since 2008.

5.7.   Revitalising the sustainable development strategy should not lead to more centralised control. Sustainable development must be accompanied by new approaches to delegating and decentralising decision-making.

5.8.   Sustainable development is based on committed grassroots action. Throughout the 1990s, voluntary organisations – and the social partners – were the driving force in galvanising the EU's activities in relation to sustainable development. Voluntary organisations should play a key role in a revitalised sustainable development strategy.

5.9.   Another important player in future efforts is local and regional government, above all local authorities.

5.10.   It is said that there is a need for more commitment from industry. Businesses have a self-evident and clear role to play in a revitalised strategy for sustainable development. There is definitely a growing interest among businesses in issues relating to climate change and sustainable development.

6.   Arguments in favour of revitalising the sustainable development strategy

6.1.   Is it important that the sustainable development strategy be revitalised? This may seem like a strange question. With information circulating daily on climate and energy questions, agriculture and biodiversity etc, there is ample support for concrete efforts on sustainability issues.

6.2.   Climate warming is a specific issue that has had considerable publicity and generated a large number of cautionary reports, for example the Stern report. Moreover, with regard to ecosystems, the TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) project has also emphasised the risks of continuing to reduce biodiversity and overburden ecosystems.

6.3.   Agriculture in the broad sense will face new problems as a consequence of rising temperatures. How agriculture should adjust to production under new conditions is a key question for future agricultural policy.

6.4.   This list could easily be much longer. The vast majority of questions are familiar from the general debate. Less attention is paid to the fact that the effects on our daily life seem likely to arrive sooner than was previously supposed.

6.5.   The Committee urges the Commission to make the EU SDS a meta-strategy for all other EU policies. All other EU strategies must feed into the targets of any future EU sustainable development strategy and boost sustainability.

6.6.   The Committee wholeheartedly backs the ongoing development and practical application of progress indicators that go beyond GDP. The recently published report of the Stiglitz Commission has once again reminded us that GDP is not up to the task of guiding us in the far-reaching decisions that we now need to take. Indeed, it misleads us by failing to identify the real problems and leaving them to be tackled in future. The EESC recently adopted an opinion showing the consequences of a new way of conceptualising GDP (3). However, the debate must go beyond discussions about indicators. The main concern must be how, in a sustainable way, to achieve prosperity and wellbeing in our society and develop a low-input/high-output economy.

6.7.   The EU must become better at communicating with its citizens – including on issues relating to sustainable development.

7.   Political responsibility and the need for leadership

7.1.   In a series of papers on sustainable development, the EESC has pointed out that sustainable development calls for political leadership and the will to take development forward. This does not amount to a call for more centralisation. Rather, it reflects a desire to take the initiative, create networks and assume responsibility.

7.2.   The EESC repeats its comment from previous opinions that an effective effort to promote sustainable development requires that political responsibility be actively taken, also by local and regional levels of government. The EESC also emphasises that the social partners, and civil society in the broad sense, must be given the opportunity to be actively involved in planning and implementation.

7.3.   With this in mind, it is important to emphasise the need for cooperation and interaction between the two key development/growth strategies, i.e. the Lisbon strategy and the sustainable development strategy. The question of whether the strategies might be merged is less important than that there should be close coordination between them. Clearly, however, measures under the Lisbon Agenda must contribute to meeting the broader EU SDS targets.

7.4.   A stronger governance structure is essential for successful implementation of the EU's sustainable development strategy. The EESC urges the Council to introduce a similar governance cycle for the EU SDS as for the Lisbon strategy, with annual reporting, benchmarking and the open method of coordination, making it possible to compare Member States more effectively and encouraging competition in moves to secure greater sustainability. In addition, implementation of the strategy needs to be backed by more resources both in the Member States and in the Commission.

8.   Knowledge and attitudes

8.1.   The Commission devotes considerable space to questions of education and training, and summarises the various EU programmes in this field. What the Commission does not do is to place questions of education and knowledge in a broader democratic perspective. Sustainable development, like climate policy, will require decisions which will not always be welcomed. Sustainable development, like climate and energy policy, needs to have a grassroots base.

8.2.   What can be done to ensure that backing and support on the ground are forthcoming? A key factor here is education – but education more in line with, for example, the adult education centres (folkhögskolorna) in the Nordic countries, where the democratic dimension figures high on the teaching agenda. From a social perspective, education also makes a powerful contribution to building democratic structures. Adult education centres in the Nordic countries play a crucial role in the recruitment of staff for all types of civil society organisations.

8.3.   This does not make the role of schools and education for young people less important. Both young people's and adult education must be enhanced, and new pedagogical methods must be found.

8.4.   The EESC would recommend that the education aspect of the sustainable development strategy be given a broader definition.

9.   Research and long-term development

9.1.   From the beginning, decisions relating to the sustainable development strategy have highlighted the importance of research. Several specific decisions have been taken on the long-term development of research and training of researchers. One of the most important decisions is that taken in Barcelona, which set the target for Members States to raise their spending on research to 3 % of national GDP in the foreseeable future, i.e. by 2010.

9.2.   The EESC wishes to emphasise how important it is that all Member States ensure they meet the Barcelona target, which means significantly increasing research funding.

9.3.   Research policy and the Lisbon strategy should also be more explicitly coordinated so as to achieve synergies between sustainable development and the Lisbon strategy.

9.4.   Cooperation between research centres on climate issues is well developed. However, it may be difficult for really long-term research to compete for funding. The EESC therefore suggests that the Commission carry out a study in the framework of the EU research programme to ascertain current needs in relation to research on climate change, energy issues, and sustainable development.

10.   Better preparatory structures

10.1.   The EESC has, in various contexts, underlined the need for political leadership in the preparation of measures falling under the heading of sustainable development or climate and energy policy. The EESC has on a number of occasions quoted the former French prime minister, Michel Rocard, who at a major EESC conference stated that sustainable development would undoubtedly prompt decisions that would not always be easy or popular. The prime minister of Luxembourg touched on the same subject a couple of years ago when he said that ‘the Council of Ministers knows exactly what measures need to be taken – the problem is that they we do not know how we will be able to get re-elected to our national parliaments after implementation’.

10.2.   The answer lies in the early and systematic development of consultation and dialogue procedures. Above all, this must be done on a bottom-up basis. A key concept here is involvement but it needs to be complemented by solidarity.

10.3.   The EESC has, on several occasions, underlined the need for a more effective cooperation structure within the Commission. Seen in terms of the current situation, this could mean having a separate commissioner – with the status of vice-president – to promote cooperation and coordination between the current major strategies: sustainability, climate and energy issues; and the Lisbon strategy.

Brussels, 5 November 2009.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mario SEPI

(1)  COM(2009) 400 final.

(2)  See for example OJ C 195, 18.8.2006, p. 29 and OJ C 256, 27.10.2007, p. 76.

(3)  OJ C 100, 30.4.2009, p. 53.