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State of the European Environment

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Context - This report The European environment — state and outlook 2015 sets out to provide policymakers and the public with a comprehensive assessment of our progress towards achieving environmental sustainability in general, and specific policy targets in particular.

This is a faithful summary of the leading report produced in 2015 by the European Environmental Agency (EEA): "The European Environment: State & Outlook 2015. Synthesis Report " 

  • Source document:EEA (2015)
  • Summary & Details: GreenFacts
Latest update: 20 September 2015

What is the state of Europe’s natural capital?

Reduced pollution has significantly improved the quality of Europe's air and water, but there is still a lot of progress needed to reach healthy aquatic ecosystems. Europe's natural capital is still being degraded by socio-economic activities such as agriculture, fisheries, transport, industry, tourism and urban sprawl and thus is not yet being enough protected, conserved and enhanced, to be in line with the 2050 vision. Biodiversity is still under threat, and Europe is not on track to meet its overall target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020, even though some specific targets are being met.

Loss of soil functions, land degradation and climate change also remain major concerns, threatening the flows of environmental goods and services that underpin Europe's economic output and well-being. Looking ahead, climate change impacts are projected to intensify, putting additional pressure on ecosystems, and the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss are expected to persist.

What is the situation of environmental policies in Europe?

In 2015, Europe stands roughly halfway between the initiation of EU environmental policy in the early 1970s and the EU's 2050 vision of 'living well within the limits of the planet'. This vision, laid out in the 7th environmental action programme, states:

"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."

Growing understanding of the characteristics of Europe's environmental challenges and their interdependence with economic and social systems in a globalised world has brought with it increasing recognition that existing knowledge and governance approaches are inadequate. The recent shift in the policy framework to a more systemic perspective on natural capital marks an important step towards the implementation of more integrated management approaches.

What progress has been made towards an efficient, low-carbon economy?

The emergence of resource efficiency and the low-carbon economy as European policy priorities is grounded in the recognition that the prevailing model of economic development — based on steadily growing resource use and harmful emissions — cannot be sustained in the long term. However, short-term trends are more encouraging.

European greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by 19% since 1990 despite a 45% increase in economic output, although more reduction is needed to reach a low-carbon economy. Fossil fuel use has declined, as well as 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, although Europe remains far from the ideal of a circular economy, where nothing is wasted. However, transition to a low-carbon economy will require a greater reduction in emission,; and existing measures will be insufficient to achieve the 40% reduction by 2030, which has been proposed by the European Commission.

How are people safeguarded from environmental risks to their health?

Despite substantial improvements in recent decades, environmental health challenges remain considerable. In addition to established problems — such as air pollution, water pollution and noise — new health issues are emerging. These are associated with long-term environmental and socio‑economic trends, lifestyle and consumption changes and the rapid uptake of new chemicals and technologies. Furthermore, the unequal distribution of environmental and socio-economic conditions contribute to pervasive health inequalities.

What are the challenges that Europe faces and how can they be addressed?

A variety of factors contribute to the disparity between the efforts made to reduce key environmental pressures and the resulting improvement of ecosystem resilience:

  • There is a time lag between a change in pressure and an improvement in the environment.
  • Feedbacks, interdependencies and lock-ins in environmental and socio-economic systems can undermine efforts.
  • Changing exposure patterns and human vulnerabilities, for example linked to urbanisation, can offset reductions in pressures.
  • The systems of production and consumption that are responsible for many environmental pressures also provide benefits like jobs and earnings, which provide incentives for resisting change.

Perhaps the most difficult challenges for European environmental governance arise from the fact that environmental drivers, trends and impacts are increasingly globalized, and as such are outside of the control of direct EU environmental policies.

The previous ‘State and Outlook’ report by the EEA, in 2010, drew attention to the urgent need for Europe to shift towards a much more integrated approach to addressing persistent, systemic environmental challenges. There has been some progress in that direction, but a lot more needs to be done to achieve the 2050 vision.

Europe's success in moving towards a green economy will depend in part on striking the right balance between four approaches: mitigation of known impacts while creating socio-economic opportunities; adapting to expected climate and other environmental changes by increasing resilience; avoiding potentially serious harm to people and to the environment by taking precautionary and preventive action; and restoring resilience in ecosystems and society by enhancing natural resources, thus contributing to economic development and addressing social inequities.

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