EEA forecasts continued pressure on Europe’s environment

Despite more than 25 years of Community environmental policy - successful, on its own terms -, general environmental quality in the European Union (EU) is not recovering significantly, says a report released yesterday by the European Environment Agency (EEA).

There has been real progress in some areas, e.g. river quality and acidification but others, such as waste, are getting worse, says the report, Environment in the European Union at the turn of the century.

Environmental policy can not alone provide the sustainable development set up as a goal in the Amsterdam Treaty. Economic sectors have to change and carry their part of the responsibility for sustainability, says the EEA.

The report analyses that situation and documents the current and future unsustainable development of some economic sectors – transport, energy, agriculture, household consumption and tourism. This, it says, is the major barrier to environmental improvement, even when considering policies in place or in the pipeline in 1997.

If no additional action is taken, the EU environment will remain under serious pressure from a range of activities – transport, industrial production, leisure activities and even from individual life style – many of which are forecast to increase the pressure. Because these are interconnected, they will have a knock-on effect on each other, says the report.

Key findings

  • EU economic growth: We have seen some progress in eco-efficiency – less pollution per GDP. But production and consumption will increase more and, in general, demand more natural resources and generate more pollutants and waste. We can expect the increase in waste – 10% from 1990 to 1996 – to continue. This development has already started eroding gains from environmental policy initiatives e.g. air quality Directives. Economic growth therefore necessitates speeding up efforts towards better integration of environment into all policy areas.
  • Despite a growth in energy efficiency, EU’s energy consumption (1995 – 2010) will increase by 15% from 1995 to 2010. With more households, more mobility and more transport, 30% increase is foreseen in passenger car transport and 50% in freight transport. This causes in particular a rise in emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, making climate change issues even more difficult to tackle. The EU target to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions by 8% between 1990 and 2008 – 2012 will not be met under pre-Kyoto action. Instead a 6% increase of emissions is expected. The share of renewable energy, now 6%, is increasing, though only modestly; it is unlikely that the target of 12% by 2010 will be met.
  • Tourism is growing rapidly and significantly. A 50% increase in international tourist arrivals is expected between 1996 and 2010, causing a rise in transport and energy demand. There is also an on-going increase in urban sprawl, with up to 120 ha/day in land-use changes in some countries. Together this means a serious challenge to rural assets and sensitive areas such as coastal zones, 85% of which are already at high or moderate risk from various pressures.
  • Total chemicals production is on a rising trend while minimal risk-assessment analysis is not carried out for 75% of the large-volume chemicals on the market. Emissions or discharges of some heavy metals, like cadmium and copper, and of hazardous chemicals from industry, road transport and agriculture – like some pesticides – are expected to rise. Other emissions, like lead and dioxins, are forecast to decrease.
  • Progress in the integration of the environment into sectoral decision-making and policies is real but slow. Major progress is seen in industry, using environmental management and audit schemes. Economic instruments such as eco-taxes are still being applied on a small scale. There is great potential for expanding integration policies and instruments into other economic sectors.

There have been significant and positive cuts in ozone-depleting substances. There has also been a reduction of emissions contributing to acidification and of phosphorus discharges to rivers. However, progress in reducing other pressures on the environment has remained largely insufficient, says the report.
Only air polluting emissions have shown a significant decoupling from GDP since 1990. By contrast, there has only been a relatively small decoupling of carbon dioxide and waste. The outlook foresees these trends to continue to 2010 with future emissions increasing in problem areas that have appeared difficult to tackle: greenhouse gas emissions, chemicals and waste.

A summary of the report can be downloaded in Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) format (requires Acrobat Reader) by following the links below.

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