EU 2020: an impossible strategy for unsustainability and inequality

EU 2020: an impossible strategy for unsustainability and inequality

By Luis González Reyes

We live in a system, the capitalist, that works with a single premise: to maximize individual profit in the shortest time. Furthermore, the EU, within the framework of an economy that needs and seeks continuous growth, it is impossible to achieve sustainability on a limited planet.

During the Spanish presidency of the EU in the first half of 2010, the European Council plans to approve the EU 2020 Strategy, which will be the one that will replace the Lisbon Strategy. This strategy will mark the basic lines of the Union's policy for the next decade. EU 2020 sets itself a clear and clear objective: growth. Why is this the basic objective of the Union? It's possible?

Let's start with the first question. We live in a system, the capitalist, that works with a single premise: to maximize individual profit in the shortest time. One of its inevitable corollaries is that the consumption of resources and the production of waste cannot stop growing.

Let's see it with an example. We start from the European Central Bank (ECB), which lends money at an interest rate. Let's say that Santander takes a few million from the ECB. He obviously does it to make a profit on it. For example, it lends them at a higher interest rate to Sacyr-Vallehermoso. Why does the construction company ask the bank for money? Let's imagine that to buy 20 percent of Repsol-YPF. Sacyr expects to recover its investment in Repsol more than anything else, which is due to a continued increase in Repsol's profits. In other words, for Sacyr to make its investment profitable and return the loan to Santander and this in turn to the ECB, Repsol cannot stop growing. If there is no growth, the credit spiral collapses and the system collapses. Growth is not a possible consequence of this system, it is an indispensable condition for it to work.

And how does Repsol grow? Selling more gasoline (more climate change); cutting salary costs (as after the purchase of YPF); extracting more oil even from National Parks (like the Yasuní in Ecuador) or from indigenous reserves (like the Guaranís in Bolivia); lowering security conditions (as in the Puertollano refinery); subcontracting services (as in the transportation of crude oil); supporting dictatorships (as in Guinea)… Come on, at the expense of the populations of the peripheral areas and Nature.

Myths and legends

Let's get to the second question: is continued growth possible? To answer the question affirmatively, the EU uses a series of myths.

The first is that of dematerialization, that is, the statement that our economy can continue to grow by reducing its material consumption. The main indicator is the Total Material Requirement (RTM), which has tended to grow between 1983 and 1997 in the EU-15. [1] In addition, the expected evolution is of a significant increase in the accumulated use of materials, as reflected by the European Environment Agency. [2]

When analyzing the composition of the EU-15 RTM, it is observed that the vast majority (88 percent) is made up of non-renewable resources, mainly fossil fuels (28 percent), metals (23 percent) and minerals for construction ( 18 percent). [3] These data clearly show the basis of the community economy and its unsustainability.

The second myth is that of the decoupling of GDP growth with energy consumption. It is true that there has been a lower increase in energy consumption compared to GDP, but in no case have both indicators stopped growing. [4]

The third myth is that of efficiency. The EU proposes that, with technological innovation, we can solve all our problems. Again the data contradict the speeches. Despite the significant decrease in CO2 emissions from vehicles in the EU, the reduction has, however, been overwhelmed by the impressive increase in the number of vehicles. The result is an increase in total emissions from European vehicles. [5] The issue should not be efficiency (or, at least, not only) but, above all, reduction.

The last of the myths that try to sustain that we can continue to grow indefinitely is that renewables are going to solve all our problems. Would a car powered by electricity from renewable sources solve all problems? It would undoubtedly be progress, but we would continue to slice up the territory and lose biodiversity, lose lives in traffic accidents or have cities designed for cars and not for people. In addition to renewables, we need a reduction in the automobile fleet. However, the fundamental problem is that renewable energy sources are not enough to maintain current EU consumption levels and make them universal.

In conclusion, continued growth is not possible, so this Strategy proposes an exercise in politics-fiction. To achieve continued growth, the EU sets itself several objectives:

- 75 percent of the employed population.

- 3 percent of GDP in R&D.

- 20/20/20 Goal: 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, with 20 percent renewable and 20 percent more energy efficient.

Consequences of chasing myths

Why these objectives in the framework of growth? Involving? The increase in the employed population has to do with the fact that, for growth to be maintained, it is necessary to introduce more people into the labor market. This does not mean that they enter into decent working conditions, but rather that the degrees of precariousness will most likely grow.

Specifically, the increase in the employed population refers mainly to the increase in women in the world of paid work. This is going to increase the crisis of care that we currently suffer.

But what is this crisis of care? Several authors, such as Yayo Herrero, have been explaining how traditionally women have been in charge of carrying out the essential care tasks for life: food, affection, hygiene, care for the elderly and young ... These are jobs that have mostly located outside the paid sphere. With the incorporation of women into the labor market, these tasks remain undercovered, or are dealt with through double shifts by women or “imported” from the South through the work of immigrant women (and obviously remain undercovered in their places of origin). [6]

In short, that fundamental tasks for the maintenance of life are neglected on the altar of growth. In this way, we should evolve from a society that focuses heavily on job creation to a society that asks questions such as the following: What jobs are socially necessary? And how do we distribute them equitably to cover them?

The second objective places technology as one of the bases for the continued growth of the EU. To analyze the impossibility of solving environmental and social problems solely in this way, we would have to refer to the myths mentioned above, those of dematerialization, decoupling, efficiency and renewables. But it should also be noted that this increasing specialization in technology is done at the cost of diverting an increasing amount of environmental impacts to the countries of the South, as reflected in the "rule of the notary."

At the international level, the countries of the South are specialized, in a forced way, in the extraction and transformation of raw materials. These stages involve energy consumption and generally very high environmental impacts. However, in the final phase of the production cycle, the energy consumption of manufactured products with a high technological component, which are those produced by the central countries, decreases. This is making it easier for Northern countries, including the EU, to improve some of their environmental indicators.

Furthermore, the market value of manufactured products is much higher than that of raw materials, what José Manuel Naredo and Antonio Valero call the “notary's rule”. [7] Thus, countries are enriched because they deal with the final stages of production and marketing of products with high added value and low environmental impact. Meanwhile, the impoverished are in charge of the extractive and processing phases with little added value, but with high environmental impacts.

This remains clear when analyzing the data, for example the growing ecological backpack of EU imports. At the same time that the mass of imports from the EU grows slowly, the ecological backpack associated with them is exploding more and more, demonstrating how we are shifting our ecological footprint to peripheral populations. [8] A second piece of data in the same sense is the physical balance of the EU economy (the mass of imports minus that of exports). Its result is clearly negative and places the Union as a clear importer of matter. [9]

Imports and skills

Finally, the 20/20/20 objective is framed in a context in which the EU is importing 75 percent of the oil and 50 percent of the gas it consumes, percentages that continue to increase progressively. Furthermore, as the Strategy itself highlights, this occurs in a context of growing competition for these key resources.

That is, it seems that the commitment to energy efficiency and renewables is more out of necessity than virtue.

In any case, the EU proposal is insufficient to fight climate change, since the IPCC, the panel of scientists of the United Nations, places the safety margin at 40 percent to minimize the probability for climate change to skyrocket. In this sense, 20 percent falls far short, as would 30 percent, the most ambitious percentage of emission reductions that the EU would reach in the best of cases (and all this with "flexibility mechanisms ”Which actually reduce these percentages).

This is a hypocritical proposition, as EU emissions should increase by about a third if goods produced outside the EU's borders but consumed here are accounted for. [10]

Finally, to guarantee growth through these three objectives, the 2020 Strategy is equipped with a series of instruments with a neoliberal spirit that there is no space to detail here.

By way of conclusion, we can affirm that the supposed environmental concern of the EU is an exercise in image washing and adapting to a world in increasing competition for increasingly scarce resources. Furthermore, the EU, within the framework of an economy that needs and seeks continuous growth, it is impossible to achieve sustainability on a limited planet.

Luis Gonzalez Reyes He is a member of Ecologistas en Acción. This article has been published in issue 42 of the Pueblos Magazine, June 2010.


[1] There are no more recent data, which is already an indicator in itself.

[2] Skovgaard, M., Moll, S., Møller Andersen, F., Larsen, H .: Outlook for waste and material flows Baseline and alternative scenarios. ETC / RWM working paper 2005/1, European Topic Center on Resource and Waste Management, Copenhagen. Available in: wp1_2005. 2005.

[3] Stephan Moll, Stefan Bringezu, Helmut, Schütz: Resurce Use in European Countries. Wuppertal Report, 2005.

[4] European Environment Agency: Environmental indicators.

[5] European Environment Agency: Europe’s environment. The fourth assessment, 2007.

[6] Obviously the option is not for this to continue like this, but rather to give value to these fundamental activities at the social level and that they be shared between women and men.

[7] In the words of the authors: “in the construction of a house the greatest energy consumption is taken by the removal of earth, construction materials, cement, glass and steel, which, however, have a low unit price . On the contrary, when the operation ends at the notary's table, the notary, the promoter, the registrar and the treasury consume very little energy in their activity and, nevertheless, receive a good fraction of the final sale price ”.

[8] Wolfgang Sachs and Tilman Santarius (dirs.): A just future. Icaria editorial-Intermón-Oxfam. 2007.

[9] Stephan Moll, Stefan Bringezu, Helmut, Schütz: Resurce Use in European Countries. Wuppertal Report. 2005.

[10] Steven J. Davis, Ken Caldeira. Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions. PNAS. 3-9-2010.

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