Recycling less than 1% of high tech metals, Europe has no moral justification to blame the Chinese for restricting their exports of rare earths, Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker from the United Nations Environment Programme argued in an interview with EurActiv.com.
According to a report released by UNEP’s Resource Panel in the spring of this year, recycling rates of metals are in many cases “far lower than their potential for reuse”.
Less than one-third of the 60 metals studied in the report have an end-of-life recycling rate above 50% while 34 elements are below 1% recycling, the UNEP panel found.
The trouble is that the recycling shortfall also concerns very valuable high-tech metals, which are much in demand today, said von Weizsäcker, who is co-chair of the UNEP’s International Resource Panel.
It “applies to rare earths, but also for lithium that you need for car batteries, gallium you need for computers and digital cameras and indium that you need for computer screens,” he told EurActiv.
The weak performance is frustrating for the UNEP resource panel, because unlike some other resources, metals are “inherently recyclable”.
And while more than half of the iron and steel, as well as platinum, gold, silver and other precious metals, are recycled in industrial applications, only a small fraction of them is recycled in electronic goods.
Asked to comment on the rare earths row between China and Europe, von Weizsäcker was categorical: “As long as we, Europeans, are wasting 99% of the rare earths that we are using we have no moral justification to blame the Chinese for being a bit restrictive on exports.”
Instead of dwelling in such “wasteful behaviour” it would make sense if the EU sought to negotiate with the Chinese to exchange our recycling technology for a bit more of these rare metals, the German scientist suggested suggested.
Commission urged to table green tax reform
After several fact-finding reports on resource intensity or resource productivity, which show that decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth is not happening – the UNEP’s International Resource Panel is currently finalising a report on technologies and policies needed to do so.
The report should be ready on time for next year’s Rio+20 summit, which is expected to agree on an action plan for a ‘Global green economy‘ to guide international action on sustainable development policy for decades to come.
However, the report will not be giving any policy recommendations, as “this is something that countries don’t want to be told by a panel like ours,” Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker noted.
“Actually, the European Commission has a much stronger mandate to do such things. After all, it is the EU Commission that is the typical initiator, if not the only one, for new legislative instruments,” he said, adding that people would be disappointed if its roadmap would not lead to any legislative proposals.
In particular, von Weizsäcker would like to see the EU executive table a proposal for fiscal instruments that encourage resource productivity, meaning a tax shift from labour to resources. However, that “is very unlikely to happen because the British are going to block it,” he added, referring to national subsidiarity in fiscal matters.
Shifting taxation from labour to resources “would be very clever, because it would make the EU more competitive in fields that really count on world markets,” he argued, listing as examples energy efficiency and metal savings.
The scarcity of metals, biomass and others makes “it absolutely reasonable to have price signals making the scarce factor dearer and an abundant factor less dear,” he pursued.
While the EU roadmap on resource efficiency identifies food, housing and mobility as the main sectors where resource use should be addressed, and eventually taxed more, von Weizsäcker insisted that this does not mean one would actively seek to make mobility or food more expensive.
“You would make energy use for mobility or energy use for food more expensive,” leaving a person the option of consuming less energy for his transport, he said.
Meanwhile, slapping taxes on primary resources such as energy, water and minerals, including those needed for fertilisers, could indirectly make private car use or food so expensive that it would have social consequences, in particular for the poorest, but also for the large middle class which is already struggling in the current crisis.
Von Weizsäcker said he had addressed this topic with EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik at the global resource forum in Davos in late September. “I offered him a policy instrument – that I have not invented – that simply looks at namely the so-called lifeline philosophy that is in place in South Africa,” he said.
“Essentially it says that what you really need for living in terms of energy and water is cheap and the cost – price signal – begins only above that lifeline amount. That would mean that the poor are almost entirely exempted from the price rise,” he explained.
But he acknowledged that “if you have a commuting distance of 30 miles each way and there is no reasonable public transport available” trying to do without a car could be very difficult.
As to the fate of car manufacturers – in case private car use falls – Professor von Weizsäcker said that they would be incentivised to innovate and produce cars that use less fossil fuels, for example, underlining the need for a technological, and not an austerity, answer.
Professor von Weizsäcker is thoroughly convinced that “we can do five times better”.
In his latest book Factor five – Transforming the Global Economy through 80% Improvements in Resource Productivity, he shows that it is possible to manufacture cars which only consume a litre and a half for a hundred kilometres, that food can be produced with a lot less energy and water and that our houses can be built energy neutral.
“It may take a generation or two but if we now begin to give a signal that energy efficiency and resource efficiency becomes ever more economically reasonable, we will see after 30, 40 or 50 years a five-fold increase in resource efficiency,” he said.
And the EU would be very wise to follow that trajectory, as it would help the bloc put an end to its dependency on oil or gas imports, he said.