“The environment is a cross-cutting area with great opportunities”
We interviewed Maite Zazpe, leader of Zabala Innovation's Environment Area
Working to make sustainability a reality is one of the driving forces behind Zabala Innovation’s Environmental Area. Led by Maite Zazpe, this is a department that has witnessed first-hand the environmental evolution and how it has gained relevance in policies, programmes and social awareness. Its leader reveals some of the most important European milestones in this area.
The environment was not such a priority issue before, but now it is very relevant. How does Zabala Innovation approach it?
I remember with great emotion when we helped one of our clients to prepare the first explicitly circular economy topic in 2014. This terminology was barely known, they spoke of “circular economy”, “industrial symbiosis”, “systemic solutions” or “cross-sectoral approach”. We gave it a thousand spins, as many as it took. When the resolution came through and the funding was secured, we were very proud. Eight years have passed since then and the Environment Area has grown from 3 to 12 people.
It is certainly a very relevant issue. For some years now, in most European funding programmes it has been essential to address environmental issues when preparing a proposal.
How has the clients’ perception of this issue evolved?
It has changed a lot. In addition to the regulatory framework, awareness has increased and our customers are making a very strong commitment to more sustainable processes, products and services.
This is very clearly reflected in the exponential increase in the number of projects we have had in the last ten years. For example, in the LIFE Programme we have significantly increased the number of proposals, both nationally and internationally. The first project we submitted was in 2004, we picked up pace around 2008 and by 2021 there were 17 full proposals after a thorough analysis of the project ideas. And right now we are immersed in the submission of proposals for the LIFE call for Strategic Integrated Projects which closes on 7 April.
Is LIFE the star programme for the environment?
I would say that all European programmes contemplate and are in favour of the environment, but the LIFE Programme is the only EU funding programme aimed exclusively at environment, climate and energy actions. It has two main objectives: on the one hand, the development of projects to catalyse the large-scale deployment of successful technical solutions that solve an environmental problem relevant to Europe. On the other hand, to contribute to the implementation, updating and development of EU environmental legislation and policies.
And what do these European policies translate into?
The EU fights climate change through ambitious internal policies and close cooperation with international partners. Europe has set itself the goal of becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Climate action is at the heart of the European Green Deal, an ambitious package of measures ranging from drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, cutting-edge research and innovation, to preserving Europe’s natural environment. We have funds from the Next Generation Plan, where sustainability will be key to making the economy resilient in times of pandemic by focusing on high leverage projects to re-launch industry.
And what other European initiatives have addressed the environmental challenge?
Practically all European programmes address it. For example, in the case of Horizon Europe, we have been asked the same questions: “Where are the old “environmental topics”, what has happened, have they disappeared? The answer is no, far from it. The difference is that in the previous Horizon 2020 Programme there was a specific work programme for the environment (climate, natural resources and the environment).
And now, in the new Horizon Europe, there is no specific cluster for environment, but we can find “environment topics” in almost all clusters, mainly in clusters 4, 5 and 6. This is the main change, because the environment has become a totally cross-cutting area.
In conclusion, there are many, many European opportunities in the environment, and our team has quickly adapted to the new needs. In addition, we collaborate with all the knowledge areas of Zabala Innovation, especially with Agri-Food and Bioeconomy, Industry and Digitalisation, Energy, Regions and Social Innovation.
Have the results been in line with this process of adapting to the new overview?
The truth is that Zabala Innovation is very well positioned in the environmental area, both nationally and internationally, as a result of the effort and perseverance of many years. We are very satisfied with the achievements of our clients; their successes are our successes.
In the 2014-2020 period, we helped our clients to finance more than 45 projects in Horizon 2020, in areas as diverse as raw materials, circular economy, waste, water, air quality, nature, climate services, etc. In Horizon Europe, we have had to face projects with much larger consortia, but we have been able to successfully overcome this first stage.
Regarding the LIFE Programme, we have submitted more than 120 proposals and we have achieved very good figures: 50% of the proposals we have submitted have obtained funding. And we also participate as coordinators or partners in European projects and tenders related to the environment; one of the most recent is the DIGIECOQUARRY project of Horizon Europe, in the field of the extractive industry.
These are important achievements, how does the area assimilate them?
If there is something that I think characterises the team, it is motivation, innovative spirit and not staying stagnant, because we think that things can always be done better. Therefore, we are always taking actions to improve and learn continuously.
For example, although the LIFE Programme is expected to be published on 17 May 2022 and the deadline for submission of LIFE Standard Action Projects is 4 October 2022, we already launched an improvement action in January. We focus mainly on the Impact part, which as a novelty of the new LIFE Programme scores double in the evaluation. In any case, we are facing very important challenges.
Are we ready to face them or do we still have to mobilise a lot of consciences?
I think so, fortunately there is much more awareness today than there was twenty years ago. This makes it easier for there to be many more opportunities and for changes to happen more quickly. However, there is still a lot of work to be done and I feel fortunate to be part of a team that is so motivated to achieve this.
In this video you can learn more about the work of Zabala Innovation’s Environment Area.