Europe and sustainability: towards Horizon 2020

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"The future can be yours! Last chance!" The motto of Jeffrey Goines, the character in the post-apocalyptic science fiction film Twelve Monkeys directed by Terry Gilliam in 1995, has never been more relevant. Let's see why. In 1978, the French explorer and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau proposed the idea that the interests of people not yet born had to be protected, i.e. of those who are reading this article right now, by means of a Bill of Rights of future generations. The document, ratified by UNESCO in 1991 and by over one hundred countries later on, laid down five key points:

  • Future generations are entitled to an uncontaminated and undamaged Earth and to its enjoyment as the ground of human history, of culture, and of the social bonds that make each generation and individual a member of one human family.
  • Each generation, sharing in the estate and heritage of the Earth, has a duty as trustee for future generations to prevent irreversible harm to life on Earth and to human freedom and dignity.
  • It is, therefore, the paramount responsibility of each generation to maintain a constantly vigilant and prudential assessment of technological disturbances and modifications adversely affecting life on Earth, the balance of nature, and the evolution of mankind in order to protect the rights of future generations.
  • All appropriate measures, including education, research and legislation, shall be taken to guarantee these rights and to ensure that they not be sacrificed for present expediencies and conveniences.
  • Governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals are urged, therefore, imaginatively to implement these principles, as if in the very presence of those future generations whose rights we seek to establish and perpetuate.

Already in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development issued the Brundtland report (better known as Our Common Future), a document which for the first time introduced the concept of sustainable development. A definition was given of this concept that combines expectations of prosperity and economic growth with environmental protection and the preservation of natural resources: «Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.»

Over the last few years, the European Union has developed the conviction that this matter if of absolute priority and has included the goal of sustainable development among its policies, taking on a leading role in the fight against climate change. We refer here, for example, to the European Commission communication:“Mainstreaming sustainable development into EU policies: 2009 Review of the European Union Strategy for Sustainable Development”. The main objective is to move to a low carbon economy with a more rational use of resources. However there are still several unresolved issues: the demand for raw materials continues to grow and in the long-term it will become unsustainable, biodiversity and water resources are decreasing on a global scale, energy consumption in the transport sector is growing year by year and poverty is unfortunately increasingly widespread at these latitudes. The current economic crisis requires, inter alia, that in the future our financial systems also become "sustainable", i.e. that they be able to protect the environment, promote development and social inclusion and contain unemployment through the use of truly reliable financial products and services.

In this respect, research and techno-science are already playing a key role as they turn the crisis into a unique opportunity to finally reach the much needed financial and ecological stability, create a dynamic low carbon and dynamic society and make better use of the planet's resources without causing irreversible damage.The European Union goal is namely that of a "Green growth", which sees scientists and new technologies facing the challenge of reducing the climate and ecosystem footprint.

This is obviously a medium-to long- term project which is however essential to boost the economy and create new jobs. Research and development will play a decisive role and investment will have to be massive, far exceeding current investment. According to Eurostat data between 2000 and 2007, the share of domestic gross spending for this sector even dropped from 1.85% to 1.83% of GDP, alarmingly diverging from the minimum established by the EU, i.e. at least 3% for 2010. The seventh framework program for technological research and development for the period 2007-2013, however, envisages a significant contribution to sustainable development with a planned expenditure of 1.3 billion euro. Moreover, it also calls for a mix of public and private capital to finance scientific research on projects such as "green cars", "energy-efficient buildings" and "factories of the future".

Let's see, in detail, the main aspects on which the European Union has decided to take action.

Climate change and clean energy

With regard to greenhouse gases, the trend over recent years is positive, apart from the 2002-2004 period. The European Union could thus achieve the goal set by the Kyoto Protocol, which is a reduction in greenhouse gases by 8% compared to 1990 to be achieved by 2012. In December 2008 the package called "Climate and Energy" was approved which establishes goals that are may be too ambitious but absolutely necessary. The European Union has committed itself unilaterally to reduce its overall emissions by 20% by 2020 compared to the levels of 1990 and to increase that figure to 30% when an international climate agreement is reached. The EU also intends to bring the share of renewable energy out of total energy consumption to 20% by the end of this decade. The European Strategic Energy Technology Plan is intended to accelerate the development and deployment of low-carbon processes capable of ensuring an advantageous cost/benefit ratio.

Sustainable Transportation

The commitment is to cover 10% of fuel consumption for transportation through renewable energy sources (biofuels, renewable electricity and hydrogen) by 2020. The goal is to achieve "green transport", with less harmful emissions, adequate anti-noise measures, a more rational use of land and increased biodiversity protection.

Sustainable consumption and production

The aim is to improve the environmental performance of products, boost demand for more sustainable goods and production technologies and promote innovation.Through the communication "Public procurement for a better environment" the European Union set a minimum target for Member States, unfortunately just indicative, that 50% of all public tendering procedures should be "green". According to this approach, the public administrations shall take environmental criteria into account at all stages of the procurement process, thus encouraging the spread of technologies and products that have the least possible environmental impact.

Preservation and management of natural resources.

The depletion of fish stocks, caused by excessive and irrational fishing activities, is a phenomenon that has been plaguing our seas for decades. Forest ecosystems, while remaining stable, are increasingly exposed to storms, accidents, pests and climate change. The "raw materials initiative" of the European Union proposes an integrated strategy for easier access to raw materials and improved recycling. The Waste Framework Directive clarifies the basic concepts such as hierarchy and prevention and lays down important targets for 2020 in terms of recycling: 50% of household waste and 70% of those from construction and demolition. As regards the management of water resources, there is unfortunately a tangible risk of failing to achieve the objective of good environmental status of all waters, set for 2015.

Public Health

Of note is the decline in death rates due to chronic diseases and suicides. Encouraging data also concern the reduction in major accidents at work. However, exposure to air pollution and the production of toxic chemicals has increased. The European Union endeavors to ensure a longer healthy life for all citizens. The financing of medical and scientific research, coupled with an appropriate lifestyle, is considered as absolutely essential if we are to successfully address diseases such as cancer, rare diseases, obesity and HIV/AIDS as well as, of course, all the problems related to alcoholism, smoking, and mental health.

Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America from 1861 to 1865, said that "The best thing about the future is that it comes a day at a time". For us, however, the future is now and politicians must make important decisions that will affect future generations. The European Union rightly chose to continue investing in technologies considered as fundamental, such as nanotechnology. In addition, the Horizon 2020 initiative currently under examination by the individual national ministries, should be approved by the European Parliament by the end of 2013. According to the communication of the European Commission "Framework Programme for Research and Innovation - Horizon 2020" expenditure for research and innovation in the period 2014-2020 is estimated at approximately 80 billion euro. It is a considerable figure, which, however, is absolutely appropriate if we seriously intend to turn scientific discoveries into innovative products and services designed to improve our daily lives and create new business opportunities. The Horizon 2020 - Impact Assessment document sets out three fundamental desirable objectives:

- ensuring European leadership in the scientific sector on a global scale (24.6 billion euros).

-ensuring the leadership of European industry in the field of innovation and the necessary funding in favor of strategic technologies and small businesses (17.9 billion euros).

- addressing the most topical issues in the following areas (31.7 billion euros):

                 - Health, demographic evolution and well-being;

                 - Food safety and sustainable agriculture;

                 - Safe, clean and efficient energy;

                 - Intelligent, green and integrated transport;

                 - Efficient use of resources and raw materials;

                 - Cohesive, innovative and safe communities.

As noted in the first point, Horizon 2020 includes among its priority the achievement of a "science of excellence" that can ensure a constant production of global research and the competitiveness of our continent for a long time. The best talents will receive financial support, researchers will have access to cutting-edge infrastructure and Europe will become a pole of attraction for scientists from all over the world. This will make it possible to:

  • support frontier research of the highest quality;
  • open up new promising fields of research and innovation by supporting emerging and future technologies;
  • provide researchers with excellent opportunities for training and career development;
  • ensure that Europe has world-class research infrastructures accessible to all researchers, including those from non EU countries.

The second point, that of industrial leadership, envisages a more attractive Europe for those who want to invest in research and development. Large investments in key industrial technologies have been planned while the most innovative small-medium enterprises will receive the support that is necessary to turn them into leading global players. All this will allow to:

  • strengthen the leadership in industrial technologies, namely those concerning nanotechnologies, new generation materials, biotechnology, advanced manufacturing and processing systems and space research;
  • facilitate access to equity funding by streamlining the bureaucracy;
  • provide support for innovation in small-medium enterprises.

With regard to the third and last point, at least 60% of the Horizon 2020 budget will concern sustainable development. A large part of this expenditure, about 35%, will further contribute to climate and environmental objectives. Research and innovation in the field of nuclear energy, which is always a sensitive topic, will allow for the development of advanced methods for nuclear safety, radiation protection and non-proliferation.

2020 is unfortunately too close an horizon to verify if future generations will in fact not be damaged by the irresponsibility of the previous ones, especially ours. Through these initiatives, the EU has certainly laid the foundations for a sustainable short-term future in which technoscience shall satisfy our needs; it is only right, however, that we also begin thinking about Horizon 2050, 2100, 2200 and so on. The needs of the many outweigh those of the few, or even of the individual, and this concept is even more true for the future. The number of people still to be born is in fact infinitely larger than the people who are currently living on Earth, or those who have lived; therefore, it is absolutely necessary that the principles of the Bill of Rights of future generations be renewed in order to ensure truly sustainable development, in which scientific research remains firmly at the center of this challenge.

1] European Commission communication: “Mainstreaming sustainable development into EU policies: 2009 Review of the European Union Strategy for Sustainable Development”
2]European Commission Communication "Public procurement for a better environment"
3] European Commission Communication "Framework Programme for Research and Innovation - Horizon 2020"
4] Horizon 2020 - Impact Assessment Document

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