Speaking at a panel debate during the Open Days in Brussels, policymakers and industry experts agreed that in order to speed up Europe's drive to become a more resource-efficient economy, major changes were needed.
Echoing the sentiments of EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik, Polish centre-right MEP Danuta Hübner, chair of the European Parliament's regional development committee, argued that while good laws exist at both at European and national level, this cannot in itself guarantee the type of changes needed.
'Civilisational change' needed
What is required is nothing less than a "civilisational change," she said, which will on the one hand force EU citizens to change the way they live and consume, and on the other hand demand that EU leaders take a truly long-term focus.
Comprehensive new EU rules for resource efficiency will have to widen their scope beyond the traditional questions of energy use and promote changes in transport, water use, food consumption, building rules and the use of metals, to cite a few examples.
Tie funding to efficiency rules – Commission
Rudolf Niessler, a director in the Commission's regional policy department, said that regional funds have already "accumulated an enormous stock of projects" to improve resource efficiency, so EU efforts are not starting from scratch.
Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go in "generating the new culture" needed, he said.
For example, greater so-called "conditionality" should be imposed on EU funding principles in the future, he argued. In other words, any tender applying for regional money would need to clearly demonstrate a commitment to efficiency and "green" values in order to get the approval.
Niessler denied that such "strings-attached" rules would be used to punish inefficient projects. Rather, it would be a way to put problems on the table at the earliest possible stage and then find solutions, he claimed.
This approach was backed by Flo Clucas, president of the liberal ALDE group in the Committee of the Regions (CoR), who said that conditionality was crucial to spur a transformation towards a low-carbon economy. "Project leaders have to be told that if they don't have a sustainability plan in place, they won't get the money,: she argued.
From an industry perspective, improved research and innovation will play a key role in ensuring that the right new technologies are available for EU consumers to do their bit in the "resource revolution" and allow for technologies to be produced on larger scale, said Francis Bailly, vice-president of European affairs at industry titan GE.
However, current rules for accessing EU research funding aren't simple enough, he cautioned, admitting that projects with greater risks should be given a better chance.
Decision-makers also underlined that the new framework for regional funding should allow for more collective decisions. Behavioural shifts do not happen only at one level, and all players should be involved, especially SMEs.