‘Nitrogen crisis is the government’s red flag’

“The time for signing pacts and making plans is over, it’s time for action,” says Jeannette Levels, co-owner and senior sustainability advisor at LBP|SIGHT, a construction, space and environmental consulting and engineering firm.

Jeannette Levels ©Alva Corporate Photography

What exactly do you do as an environmental consultant?

Levels: “For 25 years I have primarily dealt with the environmental impact in projects and in production chains. Especially with the question: what is the environmental impact of the entire production chain, including use and disposal, of a product or service, and how can we influence this? Circular economy is primarily about this question. Each sector has its own strategies and philosophies when it comes to innovation and sustainability. These do not always match. Where every project in construction starts with a blank sheet of paper to create a new design, innovations in the manufacturing industry are more focused on efficient production and product innovation. I see it as a challenge to connect these sectors and processes to allow them to innovate together and look at the role of customers, directors and other companies in the whole.”

What needs to be done to make it happen?

“Most organizations can formulate a vision, but afterwards you also have to translate it into the implements to ensure that the plans become reality. It is often more difficult. Besides, we don’t have much time left. If we want a circular economy without waste by 2050, the construction projects that start now must already be circular. After all, you don’t demolish a building for a few years. Achieving this requires courage and leadership from administrators and governments. They must think beyond the next election.”

What’s in it? That courage and that leadership?

“It starts with emphasizing how urgent it is. We are now on a collision course with 4.5 degrees of global warming. If we continue like this, it will only get worse. The municipalities are currently working on plans that will still be visible and noticeable in 2050. It is therefore important to already look at circular principles in this regard.”

“I am also in favor of a new view of budgets. I often come across that there are large partitions between the budget items. An example: the municipality pays the foundation costs of a school (such as the construction of the school building, ed.) and the school itself pays the maintenance. But sometimes you want to build a more expensive building so that maintenance costs are lower in the long term. How will you split the bill? It’s often difficult because everyone keeps holding onto their own jars. We have to find a solution to that.”

Money is often a difficult point to solve these kinds of problems. What do you think?

“25 years ago, environmental management – systematic thinking about environmental impact – was still new to many companies. Our goal: to explain that spending planned money on environmental management was cheaper overall than solving incidents as they occurred. It was difficult, but it’s going well now. I have the idea that we now have to explain it again, but then to the government and society.”

“Take the nitrogen crisis. It now costs us as a society much more than if we had started spending a few percent of the budget on this five cabinets ago. The government has always pushed it forward. They devised various schemes that Europe always did not agree to. Now the government has to draw a line somewhere, we can’t run away from the problems. But I understand that the farmers are angry that the government has not done anything before. Now it will cost society extra money.”

Looking at the long term is scientifically difficult for our human brain. Does it mean anything?

“That’s right. Climate communication has also changed in recent years, and we still fail to provide sufficient information about this. In order to get companies and citizens started, it is important to make the big and all-encompassing topic of the sustainable transition smaller . When it’s so big, people often feel that their behavior doesn’t make a difference. It’s the brain’s survival strategy. When something is so big that we can’t understand it, our brain starts to calm us down. People then think and say things like: ‘my flight holiday makes no difference’ or ‘it doesn’t matter that I buy meat, the cow is already dead’. This makes it extra difficult to show urgency. That’s why we need a government that thinks long term .”

So what exactly can government do in a circular economy?

“I think that in addition to more structural financial resources, the government should also have more knowledge. Now you sometimes see that knowledge is disproportionately distributed between the government and civil society (which includes, for example, NGOs and sector organisations, ed.). This makes it difficult for the government to give a clear direction in policy and at the same time be a good customer. The government cannot only rely on knowledge of the market and civil society. They also need the necessary knowledge and skills themselves. The government also sees this itself. For years, the trend has been for the government to mainly require management skills. That’s true, but you also need substantial knowledge.”

What does it take for a circular economy to succeed?

“Circularity and sustainability must have a strong place in the economy. So the question is: should we manage it with our own initiatives, or does it require stricter regulation from the government? I think integrating negative environmental impacts financially is the only way we can really change anything in the short term.”

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