Rationale and instruments for making Europe’s economy sustainable

Rationale and instruments for rebalancing Europe’s economy

The idea of preserving the surrounding environment in a state of equilibrium has a centuries-old tradition, and as early as the beginning of the 18th century (in 1713), with regard to forest management, Hans Carl von Carlowitz proposed cutting down only as many trees as could grow back in the forest in their place.

The idea of preserving the surrounding environment in a state of equilibrium has a centuries-old tradition, and as early as the beginning of the 18th century (in 1713), with regard to forest management, Hans Carl von Carlowitz proposed cutting down only as many trees as could grow back in the forest in their place.

A few decades later, the era of the industrial revolution, based on the unbridled exploitation of all the Earth’s resources, began and the idea of sustainability receded into the background. Nor was it any different during the second industrial revolution – the 19th and early 20th centuries. The second half of the 20th century, the period of the scientific and technological revolution, was characterised by very rapid economic development and human population growth, accompanied by the use of natural resources on a massive scale. In the 1970s, however, doubts began to arise in societies as to whether the overuse of resources would result in environmental depletion – especially in view of the rapidly growing human population on Earth.

Of particular importance in assessing the impact of the economy on the environment and the state of natural resources was the Stockholm Conference held on 5 July 1972, which saw the emergence of the concept of ‘sustainable development’. Delegations from 113 countries agreed on the Stockholm Action Plan, which resulted in the establishment of the UN Commission on the Environment.

The second milestone was a document promulgated by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, the so-called Brundtland Report entitled Our Common Future. This report provided a definition of harmonious, sustainable growth as “A way of meeting the needs of the present generation that does not limit the ability of future generations to meet them”.

In May 1990, at the Bergen Conference of Member States of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the principles of sustainable development were adopted as guidelines for Europe. Since then, in the European Union, sustainable development means:

  • building a more competitive low-carbon economy that uses resources rationally and economically,
  • protecting the environment, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing the loss of biodiversity,
  • using Europe’s leading position to develop new, environmentally friendly technologies and production methods,
  • the introduction of efficient, smart energy networks,
  • the use of EU-wide commercial networks to provide an additional market advantage for European companies (especially small manufacturing companies),
  • improving the conditions for the development of entrepreneurship, especially with regard to small and medium-sized enterprises,
  • helping consumers to make informed choices.

These assumptions have been confirmed in specific legislation at the level of the EU Member States.

In June 1992, the so-called Earth Summit took place, a global conference of the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro. There, representatives from 179 countries signed the Rio Declaration, and formulated Agenda 21, a global action programme, with a view to the 21st century.

At the 2001 European Union summit in Gothenburg, Community policy set out a strategy for sustainable development, confirmed in the Treaty of Nice and in the so-called ‘renewed sustainable development strategy’. The overarching objective of the renewed EU Sustainable Development Strategy is: “to identify and develop actions to enable the EU to ensure a sustained increase in the quality of life for present and future generations through the creation of sustainable communities, i.e. communities that are resource-efficient and resource-rich, that draw upon the economy’s potential for environmental and social innovation, and thereby ensure prosperity, environmental protection and social cohesion”. The main objectives of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy included: environmental protection, social equity and cohesion, economic prosperity and meeting the EU’s international commitments. The need to stimulate economic growth without increasing pressure on the environment and the need for an integral approach in solving problems, emphasising the social dimension, involving broad sections of society in making sustainable development a reality were highlighted.

At the Rio Summit in 2012, the declaration The Future We Want to Have was adopted. In its 280 articles, divided into six main parts, the conference participants expressed their desire to renew their commitments to sustainable development at the economic, social and environmental levels.

On 11 December 2019, the European Commission published a Communication on the European Green Deal, the European Union’s strategy to achieve climate neutrality, i.e. reducing Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 at the latest. The European Green Deal entails decoupling economic growth from resource consumption, using resources more efficiently by moving to a clean, closed-loop economy, tackling biodiversity loss and reducing pollution levels. The transformation towards sustainability is also intended to be equitable, so that no individual or region is left behind.

The vision of the European Green Deal has been translated into targets in two extremely important strategies for sustainable agricultural production: “From Farm To Fork” and the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030.

“The EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030” builds on the EU Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive and the Natura 2000 network of protected areas, expanding their scope. The EU’s From-Farm-To-Fork strategy is designed to support the transition towards a sustainable food system.

The objectives of all strategies are complementary and aim to achieve ambitious targets at the EU level by 2030. The overarching goal is to create resilient ecosystems and build a sustainable chain of responsibility for food and food security in Europe.

The proposed measures will contribute to the reduction of soil, water and air pollution and reduce negative impacts on biodiversity and the climate. Increasing animal welfare will improve animal health and food quality, reduce the need for medicines and may help to preserve biodiversity.

In addition, the proposed actions will have a positive impact on dietary changes and will help reduce the problem of food waste. In the European Union, food is lost or wasted along the entire supply chain – from agricultural production to final consumption in households. According to research by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations), the world wastes 1.3 billion tonnes of food every year and, at the same time, food production needs to increase by 70% over the next 30 years to feed the world’s growing population.

A transformation towards sustainability, including a shift towards sustainable agricultural practices, is inevitable, we cannot just stay with conventional agriculture, as this model, geared towards short-term profit maximisation, high plant and animal productivity, puts a heavy strain on the environment and the climate. It is better to produce less food, but of better quality, safe for the consumer.

Support for a sustainable agricultural model is key to achieving the objectives of the European Green Deal and safeguarding agricultural productivity, especially given the crisis of the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic.

By the end of 2023, the European Commission will have presented a legislative framework for sustainable food systems (FSFS). The FSFS legislative framework proposal is one of the flagship initiatives of the Farm to Table strategy.

The implementation of the European Green Deal is supported by the Common Agricultural Policy together with a strategic plan at the national level. Each Member State has developed a National Strategic Plan in which subsidies support sustainable development, are linked to meeting environmental objectives and contribute to climate action.

As early as in the 1980s, Poland declared its active participation in actions for sustainable development, which it confirmed by signing the documents of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and by including a provision in the Constitution: “The Republic of Poland shall ensure the protection of the environment guided by the principle of sustainable development” (Article 5). This is also reflected in a number of important documents, in particular: Ecological Policy of the State (URM, 1991); Poland 2025 – Long-term Strategy for Sustainable and Balanced Development (RM, 2001), Second Ecological Policy of the State (WSC, 2001), National Development Strategy 2007-2015 (URM, 2006), National Strategy for Regional Development 2030, Strategy for Sustainable Development of Rural Agriculture and Fisheries 2030, as well as in integrated strategies of national development: Long-term National Development Strategy. Poland 2030, Third Wave of Modernity (RM, 2013) and in legal acts, e.g. Environmental Law.