The circular economy currently "invades" practically all areas of government. In Europe, its role, far from a fading fad, is becoming consolidated with the strong commitment by the European Commission to a change in the production model that translates into a social, financial, and environmental reality that is sensible and genuine.
Daniel Calleja, Director-General for Environment at the European Commission, is one of its main advocates. In this interview, he describes the lines of action in this regard, and emphasises the key role of water in moving towards a circular economy.
Question - Mr Calleja, we would like to know in detail the role that you have as Director-General for Environment at the European Commission.
Answer - The Directorate-General I head is responsible for protecting, preserving and improving the environment, developing policies to ensure a high level of environmental protection at the European level. Therefore, since the European Commission has the right of initiative, we have the competence to propose initiatives at a European level to achieve these environmental objectives. In addition to making appropriate policies, we are also responsible for overseeing compliance by Member States; if necessary, we can even resort to the European Court of Justice. Finally, we represent the European Union in international negotiations within the scope of our competences.
The Directorate-General for Environment is also responsible for managing the LIFE Programme, the only European financial instrument specifically intended to protect the environment and the Natura 2000 network.
Our mission is to ensure a high quality of life for our citizens, so that we can live well within the limits of our planet. For that purpose, we work to foster cleaner air in our cities, conserve biodiversity, improve the quality of water, waste, industrial emissions or protect health and the environment in the chemical sector, as well as to ensure that Europe continues to be an international leader in all of these areas.
Q - How would you describe the European view in terms of the circular economy, and why do you think that it is essential for the future of the EU?
A - The circular economy is not a fad, nor something that the European Commission came up with, but a real need. The world's population is increasing, as increase environmental pressures on cities, energy demands and demands on resources and raw materials worldwide. In this situation, since available resources are limited, it is essential to do everything in our hand to maximise the use of resources and minimise waste.
The transition from the traditional linear model to a circular model should not mean a cost, but an opportunity. We have estimated that the companies adopting a circular model will save 600,000 million euros per year in raw materials and production costs, and that many new jobs will emerge as a result of this paradigm shift. The circular economy should have a positive impact on three essential dimensions: the environmental, economic, and social dimensions; the three of them have to go hand in hand for the transition to be successful.
Q - What is the implementation status of the Circular Economy Package presented in 2015?
A - The implementation of the Circular Economy Package has been, since it was approved in 2015, one of the priorities of the European Commission, and of our Directorate-General in particular. Out of the 54 measures contemplated in the plan, more than 80% have already been approved or presented, measures that affect the whole life cycle of products, from production to consumption, and will influence areas as diverse as waste, materials, or innovation. There are regulatory measures, financial measures and also voluntary measures.
I would like to emphasise that all of these instruments are necessary, but they will be more efficient if they are complemented with measures that help in the transition from a linear model to the new circular model. Therefore, we are also working in commitments so that companies can also join this opportunity to benefit from the change in model.
Q - Within this set of measures, what is the role of water? Why is it not quite integrated yet in the concept of a circular economy at the European scale?
A - Water is a scarce resource: currently a third of Europe experiences water stress. As a result of the increasing needs of the population, together with climate change, the availability of water of adequate quality and in adequate amounts will be a huge challenge in the future. At the Commission we know that we should be ready for this challenge, that is why we are also committed to the circularity of water.
Water reuse is included as a priority in the Circular Economy Plan, and the Commission is preparing a legislative proposal on the minimum requirements for water reuse in irrigation.
The main objective of our proposal is providing a stable European framework to promote water reuse where needed, that is safe and cost-efficient. It will establish the minimum requirements for the quality of water used for irrigation, as well as risk management tasks. This will lead to better environmental protection, particularly of water resources and the ecosystems that depend on them, as well as of the soil and the health of consumers.
Q - Last year a Communication on a monitoring framework for the circular economy was published, which does not include any variables related to water. What do you think are the reasons for this? Does it have to do with the differences concerning water issues in northern European countries?
A - Monitoring progress towards a circular economy is a daunting task. The transition towards a circular economy is not limited to certain materials or sectors. It is a systemic change that affects the entire economy and involves all products and services.
It is not easy to monitor the progress of transitioning to a circular economy, because it occurs in many different areas. Hence, the monitoring framework is an important tool that shows how the different elements of the circular economy are starting to come to fruition. It will help us identify success factors in those sectors where further progress is needed. These results will contribute to establishing new priorities as Europe advances towards its long term objective: a more circular economy.
The monitoring framework has a set of ten indicators grouped into four areas: (1) production and consumption, (2) waste management, (3) secondary raw materials and (4) competitiveness and innovation. These indicators follow the logic and structure of the Circular Economy Action Plan.
Q - In this regard, the European Initiative on Water Reuse and the European Innovation Partnership include among their objectives fostering and prioritising investments in water reuse. Which tools are used for this? What investments has the European Commission planned in this regard?
A - Indeed, as I mentioned, we have just published the European Initiative on Water Reuse, which includes minimum requirements for water reuse in irrigation, will include a risk assessment and increase transparency. These new regulations will help farmers make the best possible use of waste water, and will relieve water scarcity, while protecting the environment and consumers.
This proposal contributes to relieving scarcity in the EU in the context of climate change adaptation. The objective is to stimulate and facilitate water reuse for irrigation, helping farmers make the best use of non potable water, relieving water scarcity while protecting consumers and the environment.
The European Innovation Partnership (EIP) on Water is one of the five innovation partnerships in the Union; this gives you an idea of how significant we think it is. It aims to facilitate the development of innovative solutions to address water challenges. The EIP Water website is open to any individual or organisation that has a project, or any citizen interested in looking up existing projects. The areas of activity are quite diverse: conservation of natural waters, administration and services related to water, chemical and biological aspects of water technology, etc.
It is important to note that we can relay on the funding from already existing EU programmes such as Horizon 2020, the Cohesion Fund, regional funds, LIFE or the European Fund for Strategic Investment, among others.
Q - What do you think about the Spanish Strategy for a Circular Economy? Do you think it is aligned with the EU Circular Economy Package?
A - The signs we are receiving from Spain are quite positive. The participation data from the public information procedure have been very high, showing an unquestionable commitment of Spanish society to the transition to a circular economy. The strategy is currently being prepared, so we will have to wait to see the final result, but we are in constant communication with the ministry to work together on a complete strategy that addresses the priorities of the European Union.
Spain realises it cannot fall behind, so it is necessary to have the support of authorities at the national, regional and local levels in order to provide solutions to an urgent challenge, and encourage a path towards a greener, more sustainable future, which I am sure Spain is willing to embrace.
Q - What is your opinion about including water in this line of work?
As I said, including water reuse in the plans for a circular economy is great news from the point of view of the environment, society, and the economy. The world water market is growing fast, and we estimate it will reach 1000 billion euros in 2020. Water reuse also presents many opportunities for green employment, and estimates show that a 1% increase in the rate of growth of the water industry in Europe could create up to 20,000 new jobs.
Spain is showing strong support for our work in this area, a commitment recently reiterated at the meeting of Directors General of the Environment from all Member States. Spain is the European country that reuses urban waste water the most, and it is in our common interest to develop an instrument that may improve this practice.
In this respect, do you think that the role of water has been limited to reuse, considering that in the circular economy there is also room for other alternatives (desalination, energy efficiency, water footprint estimation and compensation, etc.)?
The Commission is very interested in any type of alternative solution to water challenges. For example, concerning desalination, which you mention, its future development will depend on whether the industry and operators are able to desalinate brackish water and seawater at a competitive price, while complying with sustainable development goals. It is evident that the results obtained to date will have to improve substantially to achieve this.
The estimation of the water footprint is already included in the categories of our package to calculate the environmental footprint of products and organizations, as it is a very important parameter to embark on the circularity of water. We are constantly seeking new methods to improve the quality and the efficient management of such a valuable resource as water, and to do that we have to count on the collaboration of all social actors, from companies to civil society organisations, which, ultimately, share our same objectives.