The European Environment Agency’s (EEA) latest ‘State of the Environment’ report published today states that Europe faces environmental challenges of unprecedented scale and urgency. The report says, however, there is reason for hope, amid increased public awareness of the need to shift to a sustainable future, technological innovations, growing community initiatives and stepped up EU action like the European Green Deal.
While European environment and climate policies have helped to improve the environment over recent decades, Europe is not making enough progress and the outlook for the environment in the coming decade is not positive, according to the ‘European environment — state and outlook 2020 (SOER 2020)’ report.
SOER 2020 is the most comprehensive environmental assessment ever undertaken on Europe. It provides a stark snapshot of where Europe stands in meeting 2020 and 2030 policy targets as well as longer term 2050 goals and ambitions to shift to a sustainable, low carbon future. The report notes that Europe has already made significant progress over the past two decades in terms of climate change mitigation, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Signs of progress are also evident in other areas, such as tackling air and water pollution and the introduction of new policies to tackle plastic waste and bolster climate change adaptation and the circular and bio-economy. Furthermore, the EU’s sustainable finance initiative is the first of its kind on the role of the financial sector in driving the necessary shift to a sustainable future.
Urgent call for scaling up and speeding up change
While these achievements are significant, Europe will not achieve its sustainability vision of ‘living well within the limits of the planet’ by continuing to promote economic growth and seeking to manage the environmental and social impacts. The report urges European countries, leaders and policymakers to seize the opportunity and use the next decade to radically scale up and speed up actions to put Europe back on track to meeting its medium and longer-term environmental policy goals and targets to avoid irreversible change and damage.
The current range of European policy actions provide an essential foundation for future progress but they are not enough. Europe needs to do things better, it needs to address certain challenges differently, and it needs to rethink its investments. Achieving Europe’s goals will require better implementation and improved coordination between current policies. It will also need additional policy actions to achieve fundamental change in the key systems of production and consumption that underpin our modern lifestyles, such as food, energy and mobility, which have substantial environmental impacts.
The report also stresses the importance of how governments can enable a transition to sustainability and the need to address things differently. For example, Europe should rethink how it uses existing innovations and technologies, how production processes could be improved, how research and development into sustainability could be fostered and how changes in consumption patterns and ways of living could be stimulated.
Lastly, achieving such change will require investing in a sustainable future and stopping using public funds to subsidise environmentally damaging activities. Europe will gain immensely from such a change in investment priorities because of the economic and social opportunities that it can create. At the same time, it will be crucial to listen to public concerns and ensure widespread support for such a shift — a socially fair transition.
Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice President of the European Commission
The State of the Environment Report is perfectly timed to give us the added impetus we need as we start a new five-year cycle in the European Commission and as we prepare to present the European Green Deal.
In the next five years we will put in place a truly transformative agenda, rolling out new clean technologies, helping citizens to adapt to new job opportunities and changing industries, and shifting to cleaner and more efficient mobility systems and more sustainable food and farming.
There will be multiple benefits for Europe and for Europeans if we get this right, and our economy and our planet will be winners too. This is an urgent global challenge, and a unique opportunity for Europe.
Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director said
‘Europe’s environment is at a tipping point. We have a narrow window of opportunity in the next decade to scale up measures to protect nature, lessen the impacts of climate change and radically reduce our consumption of natural resources. Our assessment shows that incremental changes have resulted in progress in some areas but not nearly enough to meet our long-term goals. We already have the knowledge, technologies and tools we need to make key production and consumption systems such as food, mobility and energy sustainable. Our future well-being and prosperity depend on this and our ability to harness society wide action to bring about change and create a better future.'
The state of the environment has worsened, outlook is mixed
Overall environmental trends in Europe have not improved since the last EEA state of the environment report in 2015. The assessment notes that while most of the 2020 targets will not be achieved, especially those on biodiversity, there is still a chance to meet the longer-term goals and objectives for 2030 and 2050.
Europe has made important gains in resource efficiency and the circular economy. But recent trends highlight a slowing down of progress in areas such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, industrial emissions, waste generation, improving energy efficiency and the share of renewable energy. Looking ahead, the current rate of progress will not be enough to meet 2030 and 2050 climate and energy targets.
Protecting and conserving European biodiversity and nature remains the biggest area of discouraging progress. Of the 13 specific policy objectives set for 2020 in this area, only two are likely be met: designating marine protected areas and terrestrial protected areas. Looking ahead to 2030, if current trends continue, they will result in further deterioration of nature and continued pollution of air, water and soil.
Climate change, air and noise pollution impacts on the environment and human health are also still of concern. Exposure to fine particulate matter is responsible for around 400 000 premature deaths in Europe every year, affecting central and eastern European countries disproportionally. There is also growing concern over hazardous chemicals and the risks they pose. Looking ahead, the prospects for reducing environmental risks to health would be improved with better integration of environment and health policies.