EU: Vision of the future rests on separating economic growth from environmental damage

A review of the EU's Fifth Environment Programme has shown only limited progress and identifies the de-coupling of economic growth from negative environmental impacts as a priority for the next programme of work.


The EC has adopted a Global Assessment of its Fifth Environment Programme, which ends this year. The assessment acknowledges some success but does not shy away from emphasising an overall failure and a projected increase in environmental pressures in coming years.

Limited success

The Global Assessment states that: “practical progress towards sustainable development has been rather limited, mainly because there was no clear recognition of commitment from Member States and stakeholders and little ownership by other sectors of the Programme.” Profound changes in the integration of environmental goals and concerns into every sector of member state decision making will be necessary in order for substantial progress to be made, according to the report.

Reviewing the Fifth Programme, the Global Assessment acknowledges that a lack of targets, indicators and monitoring mechanisms have made measurement of success and failure difficult. Nevertheless, specific successes are identified and include:

  • reduction in trans-boundary air pollution
  • improvements in water quality
  • phase out of ozone-depleting substances

Other improvements resulting form Fifth Programme measures are expected as ongoing projects bear fruit in the next few years.

In its evaluation of the Fifth Programme, the Global Assessment looks at the seven environmental priorities and risk management strategies to conclude that:

  • Climate Change – “without further measures, forecasts are that the Community will not achieve [the Kyoto] objective. While emissions have fallen in the UK and Germany between 1990 and 1996, this has been due to one-off structural changes and the underlying trends are of growing emissions of CO2”
  • Acidification and air quality – “it is likely that particulates will remain a problem over much of the Union and that there will continue to be widespread exceedances of World Health Organisation guidelines for ozone”
  • Nature protection and biodiversity – future priority will be “the full implementation of the Birds and Habitats directives … and full exploitation at the national level of the opportunities created by the new Common Agricultural Policy regime”
  • Water – “there has been a significant decrease in the number of heavily polluted rivers … however nitrate concentrations in EU rivers have shown little change since 1980 [with] maximum admissable concentrations of nitrate in groundwater frequently exceeded”
  • Urban Environment – it will be necessary to implement the Communication on Sustainable Urban Development
  • Coastal Zones – “85% of coasts are at risk from different pressures, and in particular they are suffering from increasing urbanisation”
  • Waste – “waste prevention measures have not stabilised production of waste nor its hazardousness …[and] total waste, incinerated or landfilled, has risen. Progress in material recycling and recovery has been slow “particularly due to the opposition of product manufacturers to producer responsibility schemes”
  • Industrial Accidents – “in 1997, 37 major industrial hazard accidents were reported in the EU, the highest total since records began” although the number of oil spills from tankers is declining
  • Nuclear safety and radiation protection – “the unresolved issue of long-term storage or disposal of high-level radioactive waste will require continued special attention … [and] in Central and Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States, priority should be given to encouraging improvements in the safety regimes”
  • Civil Protection and environmental emergencies – “economic losses from floods and landslides in the period 1990-1996 were 400% greater than during the preceding decade”

Challenges for the future

In addition to the priorities identified in the Fifth Programme (see above), the Global Assessment identifies new priorities. These are: chemicals, GMOs, soil and eco-efficiency.

Eco-efficiency is the term used to describe the process of using fewer natural resources to produce the same amount of economic growth. According to the Global Assessment, the biggest challenge in the future will be the acceptance and implementation of eco-efficiency. The authors ask: “How could the Community promote more eco-efficient production and consumption patterns, reducing material use, energy consumption and emissions whilst maintaining levels of products and services?”

Degradation and loss of soil as well as the issues raised by genetically modified organisms are two other areas the authors recommend as priorities in the next environmental programme.

Finally, chemicals are highlighted as an area of concern. The authors point out that “there is insufficient knowledge of potential impact on nature and human health” of about 75% of large-volume chemicals. They call for a faster system for reviewing chemicals, especially given the chemical industry’s projected increases in production.

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