Monday

20th Jan 2020

Analysis

Circular economy: ambition in eye of beholder

  • Timmermans (l): 'We could have also said: 100 percent! And then it was even more ambitious! But what would that have meant in the real world?' (Photo: European Commission)

Something which is ambitious is something “not easily done or achieved : requiring or showing ambition”, according to the online edition of Merriam-Webster's dictionary.

'ambitious'

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  • Word clouds with the most frequent occurring terms in the EU commission's strategy papers on circular economy from 2014 (top) and 2015 (bottom). (Photo: Wordle.net/EUobserver)

adjective am·bi·tious \am-ˈbi-shəs\

“If a plan or idea is ambitious, it needs a great amount of skill and effort to be successful or be achieved”, notes the Cambridge dictionary.

On Wednesday (2 December), the European Commission vehemently defended its new Circular Economy strategy as having the qualities defined above.

Its vice-president, Jean-Claude Juncker's right-hand man Frans Timmermans, told journalists Wednesday in Brussels that he was “particularly proud” to present the Circular Economy Package, which included a strategy paper and four legislative proposals.

The circular economy is a theoretical concept - a society where as little resources as possible are thrown away. They are instead rather re-used, repaired, and recycled.

Jobs and growth commissioner Jyrki Katainen, also present at Wednesday's presentation, said the circular economy is a “megatrend” on par with a phenomenon like globalisation.

The commission is betting on it to have both environmental and economical benefits.

In order to get there, the EU is proposing a whole slate of measures, including new rules on reducing waste, on fertilisers, and new requirements for electronic displays to be “easier and safer to dismantle, reuse and recycle”.

Wednesday's package replaces a previously presented strategy paper, which also included a legislative proposal on waste.

More ambitious

That proposal, announced in July 2014 by the Barroso commission, was withdrawn after Jean-Claude Juncker took over the keys to the Berlaymont building in Brussels. After receiving flak for withdrawing the waste package, the commission promised to come forward with a “more ambitious” plan.

“This package is much more ambitious than the previous, first of all because it's the full circle. The previous one was only about waste,” said Timmermans at Wednesday press conference.

Ahead of the presentation, a leaked version of part of the plan elicited criticism because an EU target for recycling municipal waste was lowered.

In the 2014 version, the commission proposed that by 2030, 70 percent of all municipal waste should be recycled. In the 2015 edition, that target has been lowered to 65 percent.

Timmermans said that the recycling target should be seen in combination with other measures, like a binding target to reduce landfill to a maximum of 10 percent of all waste by 2030. He noted criticism should not focus on the lower target of municipal waste.

“It's very unfair if you don't take into account the fact that we are now legally leading to a ten percent maximum of landfill, which is a huge change vis-a-vis the previous package,” said the Dutch official.

“We could have also said: 100 percent! And then it was even more ambitious! But what would that have meant in the real world? We've set a target which we think is very ambitious, but realistic.”

Timmermans noted that EU countries have very diverging practices when it comes to waste.

For example, the commission identified six EU countries where less than 3 percent of municipal waste was dumped in a landfill, and 18 countries where more than half of all that waste was landfilled.

'Ambition means realism'

“What we've done this time around is start by looking at the actual situation in member states. As I said, there is a huge diversity among member states. And then see: In the most ambitious transformation agenda over the years leading up to 2030, what is very ambitious, but still feasible?”

Timmermans indirectly criticised the commission's previous administration.

“It was absolutely clear to me that the way the package was presented by the previous college, immediately led to a number of member states simply turning their backs to it, saying 'this is not going to be anything for us, we're not going to do this',” added Timmermans.

“What would you then have done in practical terms with all this ambition? I'm afraid very little. If we do it this way, we can get everyone on board,” he said.

Timmermans' plea for pragmatism showed a sharp difference with the Barroso era. It also reflected a new understanding of the word ambition.

An apparently internal commission document dated Tuesday (1 December), seen by this website, contained a number of arguments why the new proposal was more ambitious. One headline appeared to capture the commission's attitude perfectly, and was titled: “Ambition means realism”.

Reactions

Not everyone agreed.

Immediately following the presentation of the circular economy package, stakeholders started flooding this website's e-mail inbox with press releases, showing broad interest in the issue.

Environmental groups harshly criticised the commission, saying the new plan is “disappointing”, a “failed promise”, and has shown that the time since the withdrawal has been “a wasted year”.

Some MEPs were also quick to respond.

Two of Timmermans' fellow Dutchmen, Liberal Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy and Green Bas Eickhout, expressed their disappointment.

“I had higher hopes of Commissioner Timmermans, who on numerous occasions had promised to deliver a more ambitious proposal than the one he axed earlier in the year," said Gerbrandy. "Weakening most binding EU waste targets is not progress."

“While we welcome the fact the Commission has finally come forward with revised proposals on the circular economy, we are concerned that the plans are undermined by the lowered ambition. … A year on from the initial decision by the Commission to withdraw its original proposals, we have lost both time and ambition in the push to stimulate the circular economy at EU level,” added Eickhout.

Industry groups were more positive, although partly because a wide-ranging strategy paper like this one often contains something to satisfy many stakeholders' hobby horses.

Katainen in any case had already predicted the commission would be unable to satisfy everyone.

“There are always two extreme groups which are criticising these kinds of proposals. The first group are saying that we are not doing enough, the other ones are saying we are doing too much,” said the Finnish commissioner.

“Our message is that there is plenty of room in the middle for the moderate substance or indeed people who want to get really results and who want to create market economy which is more sustainable for the people and for the environment,” added Katainen.

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