Can resource conservation be regulated?

In recent years natural resources have become the focus of attention in policy debates and programs. The global challenges relating to the worldwide production of resources, to which the processing, use and possible re-use of which are associated, are overwhelming.

Resource conservation in Europe

As a consequence EU environmental policy has explicitly committed itself to resource conservation in recent years. Since 1997 the sustainable use of natural raw materials has been enshrined in the EU treaty. One of the goals of the current Sixth Environment Action Programme is to improve the management of resources and waste. The sustainable use of “natural resources and waste” is established in the “Strategy for the sustainable use of natural resources”. Its goal is to achieve economic growth without the environment paying the price. In the Europe 2020 Strategy launched by the European Commission in March 2010, resource conservation is one of the seven flagship initiatives. German programme of action for increased resource efficiency

As part of this EU process the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Reactor Safety have begun elaborating a national action programme for increasing resource efficiency. This programme aims to contribute to making Germany the most resource-efficient large economy in the world by 2020. In this context research projects – particularly those focusing on legal framework conditions – are to be intensified. Thus in 2009 the German Federal Environment Agency had commissioned a consortium made up of Oeko-Institut and Leuphana University in Lüneberg to develop a regulatory concept for a German resource conservation law.

Preparations for a German resource conservation law

For the work on a German resource conservation law, it was necessary to conduct first an analysis of existing regulatory approaches used in EU and German law. This enabled deficits in regulation to be found and regulations within Europe to be taken into account when developing a German law on resource conservation. The analysis showed that resource conservation in German law is addressed only rudimentarily or only as an incidental legal consequence of regulations geared to other goals. There is, in effect, no systematic regulation for conserving resources in Germany.

In addition it was necessary to establish clarity as regards the terminology; a definition of “resources” was essential to work on the study. As a starting point for elaborating the respective law, Oeko-Institut developed a matrix model for the prioritisation of raw materials which focuses on the scarcity of and environmental impacts of the production of raw materials, and analyses specific raw materials as examples.

To summarise: Oeko-Institut supports the view that general regulations on resource conservation should be laid down in a new German resource conservation law. This can create the legal framework for an efficient use of raw materials. Wherever possible, regulatory instruments should foster both initiatives carried out by companies themselves and the responsible behaviour of consumers. Wherever necessary, however, legislative measures such as laws, bans, and restrictions should also be applied.

As a result Oeko-Institut and its project partners attach great importance to a mix of instruments. Furthermore it is assumed that a modern approach to resource conservation measures should be based on the lifecycle of a resource (i.e. all stages from production to disposal should be covered).

Robust regulations are needed for sustainable resource conservation

Work conducted up to now in the study shows that in this context it is not so much the “mistakes” in regulation but rather the gaps that are the stumbling block for sustainable resource policy in Germany. For example, in the constitution there is no guiding concept for resource conservation which is committed to sustainability.

Moreover an overall assessment of recycling and waste management law (legal regulations and as far as possible approaches related to resource conservation) shows that there are still systematic weaknesses. Above all the potential of product stewardship is not being sufficiently tapped with a view to waste avoidance.

The analysis of instruments shows that in addition to material and product-related regulations for resource conservation further approaches to possible regulation should be developed. In particular the potentials of directly resource-related and plant- and planning-related instruments – e.g. a tax on the use of primary raw materials – are examined within the study.

Finally a series of instruments has to be made available that is as effective as possible in ensuring the sustainable use of resources which have been identified in the synopsis of the raw material matrix model as scarce and relevant in environmental terms.