is europe’s circular economy timetable about to get juncked?

These are interesting times for world politics and our resource flows. Barely two months have passed since the European Commission launched its circular economy package and already it is earmarked for review.

As it stands, the package is highly significant in its own right. It represents a world first; a concrete batch of policy enablers built to encourage take-up of this emerging industrial model, not just within one country but across 28 EU member states. The package is by no means perfect – some argue it is not that ambitious (myself included) – but it is at least a regulatory nod in the right direction.

The outgoing European Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik was highly influential in bringing these proposals to fruition. He realised that at some point society will have to tear away from the linear economy it so depends upon. A passionate and progressive environmentalist, Potočnik left a fledgling legacy ripe for building upon.

However that legacy may now be at risk. Today’s announcement by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that the Commission’s energy and climate change portfolios will be merged represents a major shakeup. Juncker has effectively weakened the organisation’s environmental prowess by smudging it into a joint function with maritime affairs and fisheries.

Most revealing are a set of instructions outlined by Juncker in a letter to the new incoming Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs & Fisheries, Karmenu Vella (who, by the way, is a relative unknown having no previous experience of environmental issues, save for his reported links with pro-hunting groups).

Among the duties gifted to his new charge, Juncker states: “During our mandate, I would like you to focus on the following … [assess] the state of play of the Circular Economy package in the light of the first reactions of the European Parliament and Council to see whether and how it is consistent with our jobs and growth agenda and our broader environmental objectives.

At the very least, this would suggest that the president is already questioning the validity of the circular economy within the context of European legislation. He certainly hasn’t welcomed it with open arms. I would welcome a review of the package if it meant a cleaner focus on reuse, remanufacturing, and eco-design. But I fear this exercise is more about watering down some of the higher recycling targets with a lean towards deregulation.

It remains to be seen what happens, but given momentum for the circular economy is growing it would be a crying shame if the Commission backtracked on this policy package in any way. Europe has a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate leadership on this agenda. Should it fail to take advantage of this, it will only serve as a disappointing reminder of just how subjective and fragile the policy making process is.

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