‘Substantial challenges’ in reaching European environment goals

25 March 2015

Article by Katy Orford, National Assembly Research Service

Image from Flickr by Heribert Pohl. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Image from Flickr by Heribert Pohl. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Recent analysis by the European Environment Agency indicates that while environmental policy has delivered many improvements in Europe, substantial challenges remain in many environmental areas. These results are the outcome of the synthesis report- SOER 2015- evaluating the European environment’s state, trends and prospects in a global context.

In 2013 The 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP) was published to guide European environment policy until 2020. In order to give more of a long-term direction it sets out a vision beyond that with goals for 2050:

“In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society.”

EAP identified three key objectives:

  • to protect, conserve and enhance the Union’s natural capital;
  • to turn the Union into a resource-efficient, green, and competitive low-carbon economy;
  • to safeguard the Union’s citizens from environment-related pressures and risks to health and wellbeing.

The EAP’s objectives and vision form the backdrop to the recently published SOER 2015 report; The European Environment, State And Outlook 2015: Synthesis Report. SOER 2015, which synthesises data from published sources, considers the state of Europe’s environment today and analyses opportunities to recalibrate European policies and knowledge in line with the EAP 2050 vision.

SOER 2015 concluded that Europe’s natural capital is not yet being protected, conserved and enhanced in line with the ambitions of the EAP. Loss of soil functions, land degradation and climate change remain major concerns, threatening the provision of environmental goods and services. A high proportion of protected species (60%) and habitat types (77%) are considered to be in unfavourable conservation status and the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss are projected to continue. Consequently, Europe is not on track to meet its overall target to halt biodiversity loss by 2020.

In relation to resource efficiency and the low-carbon economy, the short-term trends are more positive. European greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by 19% since 1990 despite a 45% increase in economic output. However it was noted that greenhouse gas emission reductions are currently insufficient to ensure the EU will meet its 2050 target of reducing emissions by 80-95%. Fossil fuel use has also declined, as have emissions of some pollutants from transport and industry. More recently, the EU’s total resource use has declined by 19% since 2007, less waste is being generated and recycling rates have improved in nearly every country.

Regarding the EAP’s third objective, safeguarding environmental risks to health, SOER 2015 highlights improvements in the quality of drinking and bathing water in recent decades. Some hazardous pollutants have been reduced improving the quality of Europe’s air. However, it was highlighted that air and noise pollution continue to cause significant health impacts. Projected improvements in air quality are not expected to be sufficient to prevent continuing harm to health and the environment.

The table below summarises the SOER 2015 analysis.

Table1b

Table 1. A summary of environmental trends in Europe. Source: The European Environment, State And Outlook 2015: Synthesis Report

The table highlights the disparity between the positive short term trends and the less encouraging, long term outlooks for Europe’s environment suggesting that the level of ambition of existing environmental policy may be inadequate to achieve Europe’s long-term environmental goals.

SOER 2015 states that living well within ecological limits requires fundamental transitions in the systems of production and consumption which are seen as the root cause of environmental and climate pressures. The report states that recalibrating existing policy approaches could contribute to this transition by using four key approaches: mitigating; adapting; avoiding and restoring. The broad overarching conclusion of the review was that such transitions require ‘profound changes in dominant institutions, practices, technologies, policies, lifestyles and thinking’.

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