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Document 52000IE1010

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on 'Renewable resources: a contribution by rural areas to active protection of the climate and sustainable development'

OJ C 367, 20.12.2000, p. 44–49 (ES, DA, DE, EL, EN, FR, IT, NL, PT, FI, SV)


Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on 'Renewable resources: a contribution by rural areas to active protection of the climate and sustainable development'

Official Journal C 367 , 20/12/2000 P. 0044 - 0049

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on "Renewable resources: a contribution by rural areas to active protection of the climate and sustainable development"

(2000/C 367/13)

On 20 and 21 October 1999 the Economic and Social Committee, acting under Rule 23(3) of its Rules of Procedure, decided to draw up an opinion on "Renewable resources: a contribution by rural areas to active protection of the climate and sustainable development".

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 26 July 2000. The rapporteur was Mr Wilms.

At its 375th plenary session held on 20 and 21 September 2000 (meeting of 20 September), the Economic and Social Committee unanimously adopted the following opinion.

1. Introduction

1.1. Point of departure

The Treaty of Amsterdam attached particular importance to the integration of environmental protection and sustainability requirements into all Community policies and activities (see Article 6 of the Treaty). The drive to protect the environment is focused on active protection of the climate. Climate change is caused mainly by increased CO2 emissions. These in turn depend largely on the type, handling and scale of energy use. The principles of sustainable development must underpin both energy supply and, in particular, energy use.

The White Paper for a Community strategy and action plan entitled Energy for the future: renewable sources of energy sets an objective of 12 % by 2010 for the contribution by renewable sources of energy to the European Union's gross inland energy consumption. The paper also sets out the means by which this objective is to be achieved, including arrangements establishing conditions conducive to renewable energies and increased financial resources for renewable energy schemes at both national and Community level.

Using renewable energies is not, however, the only way to protect the climate. There are various points of departure, including schemes for efficient energy use, more careful farming practices and the deployment of renewable raw materials.

1.2. Overall political objectives

The political task is to take practical action to reconcile three sets of objectives: (i) economic objectives (maintaining low-cost raw materials for private and public users, securing long-term resource availability, guaranteeing energy supply on a lasting basis, ensuring that everyone has a share in overall rising income and prosperity), (ii) ecological objectives (conserving natural resources and protecting the climate, preserving and developing the natural environment, safeguarding natural resources in the long term through the use of renewable resources, maintaining biodiversity) and (iii) social objectives (preserving and developing recreational areas, creating jobs, protecting social and cultural resources, ensuring equity [a "fair" distribution of income]).

2. Urgency of the opinion

The Economic and Social Committee considers that rural areas - often deemed to provide an ecological counterbalance - offer major potential for developing renewable resources. The Committee does not feel that all the avenues for regenerating the natural environment have been fully explored or that enough attention is paid to sustainable development in the Commission's support programmes. This view is underscored by the draft papers and publications for the new support period 2000-2006. The ESC fears that sustainability is a mere adjunct used to satisfy specified political requirements without setting out clear criteria and benchmarks. Thus, to take an example, broad-based social dialogue is essential at every level of these programmes and in the allocation of funding, which must have proven long-term effects. This opinion reflects the ESC's resolve to influence (i) upcoming programme planning by the Commission and the Member States and (ii) the management of funding. It is essential to examine and set out the role of rural areas in this process.

The ESC calls for enhanced linkage between policy areas such as agriculture and forestry, energy, structural policy, research and education. This opinion is intended to launch a political initiative, not to work out a detailed plan. It aims to show which resources could be used as renewable energies. Of course, individual energy sources must in future be subject to economic and ecological cost-benefit analyses.

3. General comments

The discussion on rural areas' contribution to renewable resources and sustainable development should assess possible developments on four fronts in particular (points 3.1 to 3.4 below):

3.1. Use of renewable energies

Hydropower generates the largest share of renewable energies, produced mainly in large installations. The growth potential of such installations is likely to be relatively low compared with other renewable energy sources. There is, however, a more interesting option - renewable energy generation in smaller hydropower plants (e.g. in mountainous regions).

There is still considerable capacity for boosting solar power generation without further use of land by deploying photovoltaics on existing surfaces such as roofs, building fronts and noise barriers. More wind power plants can be built where appropriate and in designated priority areas (such as coastal regions). There are considerable regional variations in the use of biomass to produce energy. In rural areas in particular, however, farms and forest holdings can contribute considerably more to providing biomass-generated energy. Wood is currently the most important source of energy from renewable raw materials. Increasing the use of wood-generated energy not only boosts the contribution of renewables, but can also open up new markets for the forestry sector and safeguard jobs. The forestry sector must be more closely involved in integrated renewable energy schemes.

Here the state-managed forestry sector should lead by example and work together with private forestry operators in order to use forest resources more effectively. The increased use of vegetable oils provides market openings for farm products (oil plants). The production of renewable raw materials must respect the principles of sustainable economic management, particularly with regard to fertilisation and irrigation.

3.2. Use of renewable raw materials

There should be scope for non-food production on set-aside farmland without any cut in set-aside premiums and without production being restricted to a small number of crops. Special attention must thereby be paid to whether environmental improvements - i.e. net benefits - can really be secured. Even today, European farmers can generate additional income by cultivating renewable raw materials - a practice set to become even more economically attractive in the future. There is still major untapped potential for development in the fuels and lubricants sector (oils), and further research should be promoted in this field. There are also potential market openings for oil plants since imports into Europe outstrip exports in that area (e.g. linseed oil). The use of natural construction materials for buildings and housing is becoming increasingly important. For example, alternatives to chemically manufactured paints and insulating materials have been available for some time. Further examples of innovation in the deployment of renewable raw materials include (i) the motor-vehicle industry where natural fibres are increasingly being used in interior fittings, and (ii) textile manufacture and processing, where the use of natural raw materials such as hemp and flax is also again on the increase. Sustainably produced wood and cork have a wide spectrum of uses, for example, in building or around the home. The sustainable use of the forest ecosystem also ensures its survival. Thus, in Mediterranean regions, the use of the cork oak creates local jobs and protects environmentally significant cork-oak stocks from deforestation. Demand for bioproducts is also increasing in the fields of cosmetics, toiletries and health care, and for medicinal purposes. The commercial exploitation of these products is certain to rise further.

3.3. Efficient energy use

The potential for efficient energy use and energy conservation is far from exhausted. Savings can be made not only in rural households but also in businesses, including farms and forest holdings. The use of combined heat and power (CHP) generators, for example, would be desirable for both environmental and energy reasons. In rural areas in particular, however, such plants are not yet widespread or are not yet able to operate in an economically efficient way. Further research is needed into potential uses for such plants and into the development of technologies. Greater attention should be paid than in the past to the lasting impact of Structural Fund support provided under the common agricultural policy. Resources which can be mobilised for village renovation schemes offer excellent opportunities on this front(1). In terms of support, priority must be given to thermal insulation and the use of renewable raw materials as building materials, produced, where possible, in the region concerned. In order to deploy support funding as effectively as possible in the drive for efficient energy use, improvements must be made to (environmental) advisory services, and new scope is needed for technology transfers to rural areas using the latest technical developments.

3.4. Strengthening substance cycles at local and regional level

The establishment of more effective substance cycles at regional and local level can generate substantial savings in raw materials and energies and do much to foster sustainable development (reorganisation and appropriate structuring of decentralised services - policy tool: rural development plans). Possible ways of achieving this include: 1) the separation and recycling of commercial and household waste and its use to generate energy insofar as this is environmentally safe; 2) the installation of small sewage treatment plants especially in more isolated rural communities; 3) the direct marketing of farm produce, wherever economically viable, which not only can secure additional income for farms, but also helps avoid long transport routes.

Labour requirements rise as regional and local levels are encouraged to expand in areas such as supply and disposal, direct marketing and the processing of renewable raw materials. Targeting these areas creates new jobs. This also contributes to the added value of rural areas. As well as primary production in farming and forestry, support must also increasingly focus on the processing and service sectors.

4. Overall objectives

4.1. Joint schemes to promote the use of energy from renewable sources

Almost all major political players involved broadly back wider use of renewable energies. A main concern is also to make provision for future generations, i.e. to ensure that they too continue to enjoy the basic ingredients for a reasonable level of prosperity. The ambitious objective set for 2010 cannot be achieved without financial support. Apart from the key area of research and development, support has to be given to possible broad-based applications. In doing so, it is important in the first place to promote market access for renewable energies. Support schemes must take account of appropriate profit-making opportunities for operators after the initial support phase. This includes giving operators the security to plan ahead; it also means that they are able to market their energies and have secure outlets. After all, the ecological benefits of renewable energies also require economic recompense.

In order to boost renewable energy use, energy taxation must be harmonised at European level. This also includes provision for Member States to exempt renewable energies from energy tax. Care must also be taken to ensure that energy market liberalisation does not have a detrimental effect on renewable energy use.

At national level, countries should set their own targets for achieving the overall objective by 2010 and establish how these targets are to be met. National schemes should emphasise the special significance of rural areas.

4.2. Policy initiative for rural development

Sustainable development must become the key indicator in rural areas. The ESC would ask the appropriate authorities to launch a joint policy initiative for sustainable rural development. Such an initiative should include the development, implementation, assessment and dissemination of schemes designed to enable rural areas to operate within efficient substance cycles and make the best possible use of renewable energies. The initiative is underpinned by key principles of sustainable economic management; these include, for example, involving as many local people as possible in the development process and attaching equal importance to ecological, social and economic factors. Key features of sustainable development are set out below.

5. Features of sustainable development

5.1. Developing models

In the sustainability debate, it is generally acknowledged that, in addition to the overall yardstick of sustainable development, other models also have to be defined - for example at regional level. Models are designed to be benchmarks for the respective targets, strategies and measures. As guides for action, they are thus a point of reference for common, mandatory, forward-looking ideals. All regional players must have the opportunity to take part in the debate on these models. In addition, binding agreement must be reached on how such models are to be applied in practice.

5.2. Multi-functional agriculture

As agriculture takes on an increasingly multi-functional role, it is necessary to formalise its remit and objectives - and translate them into practice - with regard to the use of renewable resources as a contribution to climate protection and sustainable development. All the available options are far from exhausted. The scope for support under the CAP in particular provides a range of different approaches to be tested and applied. For instance, farms can use Structural Fund assistance to adapt their energy base in a sustainable way. The equalisation funds offer, among other things, support options for investments in the cultivation, processing and marketing of crops used for renewable raw materials, including afforestation measures.

5.3. Developing closed substance cycles at local and regional level and compiling energy audits

In the past, too little attention was paid to drawing up substance and energy audits at regional and local level. These are, however, the only way to identify and tap renewable energy potential. In this context, top priority must be to secure the most effective use of renewable resources. Local SMEs and farms must increasingly be enlisted to help in the development of substance cycles, given their capacity in terms of land, technical equipment and highly skilled staff.

5.4. Tax and support policy(2)

In many cases today, it is not yet cost-effective to use renewable resources. These sources will become more viable as more effective production techniques are developed, and with the expected rise in the cost of fossil fuels. At the same time, the production and processing of renewable raw materials and the use of renewable energies are more labour-intensive and can create jobs. Thus, promoting renewable resources means investing in the future.

Models must be framed and tested to show how companies and private households which use renewable energies can be given financial support. The models must also reflect external effects, such as the benefits generated for the environment or the environmental damage averted by the use of renewables. Existing support schemes and directives must be subjected to a sustainability test. The aim is to boost support for renewable energies and renewable raw materials and to secure their use in the long term. The discussions must include the subsidies themselves. Investment support must also be subject to sustainability criteria(3). Following start-up and transitional funding, the individual installations must be self-supporting. Appropriate yardsticks must be worked out as part of the trial schemes.

5.5. Establishing cooperative structures

Given natural conditions and current levels of technology, it is hardly possible to generate renewable energies in large units, and they are frequently subject to seasonal fluctuations. These fluctuations in the generation of renewables and the production of renewable raw materials - as well as a desire to share the risk - force manufacturers to explore new avenues of cooperation. In rural areas in particular, companies, private households and public administration must find new ways of working together, since joint production and marketing arrangements are the only way to guarantee uninterrupted supply to consumers.

5.6. Viable forms of work

As a rule, companies established in rural areas employ only a small staff. At the same time, however, there are increasing social demands for communication and cooperation. In the light of ever more complex production processes and social intermeshing, there is increasingly no alternative but to step up cooperation. Smaller companies too must adapt to this environment. Cooperative forms of work are needed in future production, marketing and selling. These have to be learnt, and include in particular working more closely with other companies to find new, innovative solutions to operational and regional difficulties. Nor must cooperation be confined to in-house matters; on the contrary, new types of communication are needed with both consumers and buyers of products and services.

5.7. Modern education and training in rural areas

Sustainable economic management has to be learnt. Any attempt to coerce people by law or directive to adopt sustainable economic practices is doomed to failure. On the other hand, people across society have to appreciate the need for sustainable development and act accordingly. Key educational aims include providing the motivation to act independently, to develop individual initiative and to establish incentives for active involvement. Everyone should be able to have a share in education. That, however, is often difficult to achieve, particularly in rural areas, since educational establishments are frequently further away and provision is poorer. These are just two of the location-based disadvantages faced by rural areas. We should therefore welcome and support the wide range of moves being made to explore new avenues in education. Education is thus the most important tool in fostering "sustainable thinking". New cognitive patterns can only be established by introducing new ingredients, methods and tools into education. That requires special effort by all concerned.

5.8. Infrastructure development

Rural areas must not be allowed to become museums, preserved purely for nostalgic reasons. Development is essential, including the best possible provision of infrastructure facilities such as postal services and road networks. This is vital. In the long-term, lack of development also has its price.

6. Summary of recommendations

6.1. Rural area initiative

The ESC calls on the Commission to undertake a joint policy initiative for sustainable development in rural areas (see point 4.2 above). As part of this initiative, a competition may be staged for local authorities or groups of local authorities working together, aimed, among other things, at identifying those regions which have successfully established a wide network of facilities for regional substance cycles and renewable energies, or which are working on effective schemes to achieve the same objective.

6.2. Rural observatory

The ESC welcomes the continued support for a rural observatory provided for in the guidelines for the Community initiative for rural development (Leader+) (COM(1999) 475 final). This observatory must not confine its work to the Leader+ initiative, but must have an extensive role, based on data about the Community's regional development activities. The observatory can work on a number of fronts to secure an environment conducive to sustainable development, including, for example, promoting and networking sustainable projects and highlighting examples of good practice in sustainable economic management. It should also develop blueprints for coordinating the work of the various ministries and authorities concerned(4). Furthermore, the ESC calls on the Commission to ensure the full involvement of labour and management in the observatory's work.

6.3. Reviewing the objectives and scope for action of existing programmes

The ESC calls on the Commission to review its programmes with a view to fully incorporating sustainable development and climate protection as a matter of principle into Community objectives and activities. Particular consideration must thereby be given to moves to enhance human resource development. Education should focus on promoting the ingredients and skills needed for sustainable thinking and action.

In the regional plans required, for example, under the EU Regulation on support for rural development, particular attention must be paid to the use of renewable energies and renewable raw materials. The ESC would ask the Commission to use its influence with those responsible in rural areas to ensure that their plans also analyse local and regional substance and energy audits. The outcome of these audits and their impact on planning must also be reflected in the allocation of European funding.

When laying down rules for state aid under the "environmental protection" heading for renewable energies and renewable raw materials, the European Commission should allow this aid to be granted over a suitable period, as is absolutely necessary in this sector.

6.4. Development of new programmes and regulations

Apart from reviewing existing programmes, the Commission is asked to develop new schemes for sustainable development and climate protection. The ESC identifies two key strategic approaches: 1) improving research and development and 2) promoting the use of innovative techniques and procedures.

6.4.1. Improving research and development

The Commission's research programmes and projects must focus on fostering practical research into renewable raw materials and renewable energies. Research is also needed into their storage and effective deployment, for instance, in SMEs. Particular attention must be paid to their suitability for transfer to rural areas. Research must be better promoted, not least research into the processing of renewable raw materials.

6.4.2. Promoting innovation

Expanding the production of renewable raw materials and the use of renewable energies also generates additional need for product innovation, thereby creating jobs. The Commission should back this process using targeted support programmes for electricity production and heat. Particular attention must be paid to regional value added; in other words, support must also be given to processors operating in rural areas in particular. The ESC asks the Commission to promote dedicated schemes for funding efficient energy use and the use of renewable energies, particularly in the agriculture and forestry sectors. It is important that these dovetail with the investment and environmental measures eligible for support under the Structural Funds. In the final analysis, innovative products and technologies also boost export opportunities for the European economy, in this case particularly for SMEs.

6.5. Improving legal provisions

The Commission is asked to make enquiries in the Member States to identify those legal provisions which hinder the use of renewable energies and renewable raw materials. The Commission should draw up a summary report setting out proposals for a uniform legal framework. In addition, strategies and blueprints must be developed for the possible introduction of a Europe-wide tax on CO2, and tax exemptions or reductions for biofuels.

6.6. Accession countries

The accession countries must be involved in the drive to use renewable resources and renewable raw materials and improve local and regional substance cycles. There must be an exchange of experience on co-operative projects so that the parties involved can learn from each other. The Commission is asked to draw up a summary outlining the availability and/or use of renewable energies in the accession countries. Building on this summary, consideration must be given to the development opportunities of rural areas in these countries if they apply the principles of sustainable development.

Brussels, 20 September 2000.

The President

of the Economic and Social Committee

Beatrice Rangoni Machiavelli

(1) For example, the measures provided for under Article 33 of Regulation (EC) No 1257/1999. On this issue, see also the ESC Opinion of 29.4.1998 (OJ C 214, 10.7.1998, p. 56) on the Communication from the Commission on Energy for the future: renewable sources of energy (White Paper).

(2) On this issue, see also the ESC Opinion on the Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the promotion of electricity from renewable energy sources in the internal electricity market (CES 999/2000), especially points 5 and 11.

(3) In its opinion on the global assessment of the 5th environmental action programme of 24 May 2000 (OJ C 204, 18.7.2000, p. 14), the ESC emphasised "the need for financial incentives to redirect investment and promote technological innovations". It considered further that "incentives should be developed - or expanded in cases where they already exist - to find substitutes for unsustainable activities." The ultimate aim should be that "subsidies should only be granted if they promote sustainable development, and that aid for non-sustainable activities should be stopped."

(4) See also point 2.6.3 of the opinion mentioned in footnote 1 page 47.