There is little doubt that innovation is today’s “big thing”. The fast advancement of technologies, the increasing digitalisation taking place across all industries, and the ever-more encompassing dual lives that individuals lead in the physical and digital stratospheres have accelerated innovative progress. At the same time, the world has also began to recognise the importance of sustainability in the protection of our planet and began to plan for alternatives that would help us maintain our current global operations and life-styles whilst diminishing the pejorative impact that they have had on our earth since the Industrial era began.
These two concepts have recently given rise to a new idea – that of “eco-innovation”. In this Blue Innovation article we will look at how the European Union has embraced this concept in efforts to measure and map the progress of its member states in innovative methods to work to achieve the sustainability targets it has set itself for the coming decades.
What is “Eco-Innovation” exactly?
The term, which first appeared in 1996 in a book written by Claude Fussler and Peter James “Driving Eco-Innovation,” can be understood as a general approach to foster environmentally friendly progress in modern societies. At its core are specific efforts made by the parties that aim to reduce the environmental harm done in their societies – be it through ideas, products, societal behaviours, or industrial or operational processes. It is key to the European Union’s Green Deal and towards promoting and ensuring green growth in the 21st century.
The “Eco-Innovation Index”
The European Commission’s Eco-Innovation Plan was first adopted in 2011. In the plan, the Commission defined the term as “any innovation that makes progress towards the goal of sustainable development by reducing impacts on the environment, increasing resilience to environmental pressures or using natural resources more efficiently and responsibly” (Source: Decision N° 1639/2006/EC establishing a Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme – accessed online on 10th Dec 2021). Over the first decade of its existence the Commission created a system to measure the innovative progress of its partners through the Eco-Innovation Index. The subsequent system, which includes the Eco-Innovation Scoreboard alongside the Index, captures the varying aspects of the member states’ eco-innovations by measuring 16 different indicators that are grouped into 5 categories:
- Eco-innovation inputs (this includes government environmental energy investments and outlays, total number of R&D personnel, etc.)
- Eco-innovation activities (this includes number of ISO 14001 certificates, the implementation of sustainable products among small to medium-sized enterprises, etc.)
- Eco-innovation outputs (this includes sustainability-related patents, academic publications and media coverage, etc.)
- Resource efficiency (this includes material, water and energy productivity, the intensity of GHG emissions, etc.)
- Socio-economic outcomes (this includes export of products from sustainable industries, % of employment in environmental protection, etc.)
By collating the results, the experts working on the Eco-Innovation Index can identify the successes and drawbacks that some member states have had on their journeys towards green growth.
The purpose of this tool is not to shame or identify what countries may be failing in their efforts, but rather to provide a neutral and analytical view on the overall environmental, societal and economic situation in the EU member states.
A decade of progress
Since record-keeping began under this programme, the overall performance of the EU member states in eco-innovation steadily improved. Looking at the summaries of the results reported on the EU’s Eco-Innovation website, it can be seen that most improvements were seen in:
- Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, especially when looking at energy productivity and efficiency
- An increase in public awareness brought by intensified media coverage of topics that focused on eco-innovative processes and developments
- An increase in investments in R&D research, which in certain states came from both public and private sources.
From the data it is evident that not all countries have had similar successes in advancing their environmental achievements over the past decade. The EU’s tool allows us to take an analytical look across all countries to monitor their developments and perhaps identify the drawbacks and bottlenecks that may be hindering further progress. Every year the organisation issues a new report with a list of leaders, average performers and countries that are catching up – and this list has slightly fluctuated year by year depending on that countries’ policies and advances. In 2021 the “Eco-Innovation Leaders” – the top 5 highest scoring member states – were Luxembourg, Finland, Austria, Denmark and Sweden.
The Eco-Innovation Index is not a solution to Europe’s green growth agenda – rather it serves more as an diagnostic tool that allows both the EU and national governments to identify potential areas of growth in order to evolve and innovate further. If you are interested, head to the Eco-Innovation website and have a look at the evolution of the Index’s performance in the 27 member states for yourself: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/ecoap/indicators/index_en