An interview with Lutz Ribbe, the new president of the Sustainable Development Observatory

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Lutz Ribbe: president of the Sustainable Development Observatory (SDO)

Lutz Ribbe, newly elected president of the Sustainable Development Observatory for the term 2020-2023, shares his views on Sustainable Development, the challenges ahead and the priorities of his mandate.

What is your professional background?

I am a landscape-planner and landscape-ecologist. Straight after university, I joined a German environmental organisation and have now been working in this field for 37 years. In 1998, Angela Merkel, who was Federal Minister for the Environment at the time, asked me if I wanted to become a member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

As I find it fascinating and important to bring together very different interests and seek compromises and solutions that are fit for the future, I have been a member of the Committee ever since. Since becoming a member, I have led many study groups and worked on more than 60 opinions as rapporteur or co-rapporteur, including:

Why did you decide to run for the presidency of the observatory? Have you identified any particular challenges in the field? What would you propose to do about them?

As a long-standing member of the EESC, I believe that it is partly thanks to my efforts that the Committee now has a high profile in dealing with the issue of sustainability. I wrote the first opinion on this topic in 2004. Moreover, I had the pleasure of heading up the Sustainable Development Observatory (SDO) once before, and for this reason I quite simply thought that I would like to contribute to it once more before my time at the EESC comes to an end – as it will before too long.

Two major challenges, closely interlinked

We face two major challenges with regard to sustainable development: as well as the environmental aspect, which I naturally support very strongly, the associated social issues also need to be more carefully considered. It goes without saying that this must, of course, be based on the fact that both the environmental and the social aspects must also be linked to the economy, but an economy which is not destroying our children’s future. This is the first challenge. The EESC has always said that we don't just need a green deal, we need a green and social deal.

The second challenge is linked to the first. I have the impression that the European Commission sees a lot of things in very technical terms, along the lines of the idea that we just need to flip a switch or use another technology or technique and that this will make everything better. I don't believe it will. I think more attention needs to be paid to the principle that we must "leave no one behind". As we make our way to a more sustainable future, we must not forget people. We need to take them with us and consider how we can truly combine sustainability with combating poverty. I firmly believe that these are the quite major challenges facing us and the areas where our Committee can contribute.

As we make our way to a more sustainable future, we must not forget people. We need to take them with us and consider how we can truly combine sustainability with combating poverty.

What are the priorities of your presidency?

Firstly, the SDO needs to discuss and agree the work programme, but for me personally, there are three clear priorities for our work.

  • The first relates to science and technology and encompasses all the processes taking place at international level, i.e. the 2030 Agenda, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the World Climate Conferences, the Convention on Biological Diversity and so on, which we need to support and monitor.
  • The second concerns action at EU level. I think we need to become much more involved in EU work again. We need to analyse whether the Green Deal as it stands is taking us on the right path. We have already noted in many opinions that we have written, or are currently drafting, that civil society needs to pay extremely close attention to make sure that we are not put on the wrong track. At EU level, two policy areas in particular need to be monitored: agricultural policy, which is already the subject of heated debate, including within our Committee, and energy and climate policy. Prevailing economic conditions also have a direct impact on these two areas. For years, our Committee has been calling for environmentally harmful subsidies to finally be abolished and for tax legislation to be adapted accordingly. Yet, nothing is happening. I think we will have a lot of work to do in this regard.
  • The observatory's third task will involve monitoring the issue of sustainable development within the EESC. We need to check that a) our opinions are going in the right direction with regard to sustainability, b) our opinions do not contradict each other and c) the EESC itself is also acting sustainably in practice and strives to achieve the overall EU objective of climate neutrality.
How can we achieve a more sustainable development?

Parents always want to make sure that their children have it at least as good as they did, or even better. This involves thinking long term and having a responsibility to future generations. Our society, though, is currently characterised by a lack of responsibility and by individualisation. We need to focus more on the fact that as individuals we are not alone in this world, but have a responsibility to future generations. This is something that we need to make people – as well as many members – understand. We can no longer allow ourselves to act in the interest of individuals. The welfare of our community must be at the heart of everything that we do and solidarity must once again be much more of a priority for us.