Europe’s environment makes patchy recovery

Greenhouse gas and other air pollutant emissions are down, waste is increasing – but at a slower rate than the economy, and the introduction of many new sewage treatment plants is cutting polluting discharges to rivers and other water bodies, according to the European Environment Agency’s latest report on the state of the environment. However, pressure is increasing on many natural resources, such as land and fisheries.

According to the report, greenhouse gas emissions are 3.5% lower than in 1990, despite a slight rise in 2000. At the same time, urban air quality is poor with regards to ozone and particulates, whilst the level of sulphur dioxide has improved.

However, improvements are in many cases due to large cuts in only a few countries or economic sectors, says the report. For instance, large areas of natural habitats and agricultural land are still exposed to acidification, and there is little sign that eutrophication is becoming less of a problem in coastal waters.

Pressure on natural resources such as fisheries and land is also increasing. Urban sprawl and the expansion of transport infrastructure has increased by around 20% over the last 20 years, much faster than the 6% EU population growth.

“There is still a long way to go to ensure environmental issues are accorded due weight in the decision-making process alongside economic and social considerations,” said European Environment Agency Executive Director Domingo Jiménez-Beltrán.

There are three main conclusions that can be drawn from the report, says Jiménez-Beltrán:

  • the process of ‘dematerialisation’ – improving quality of life whilst reducing consumption – has not yet been fully expoited;
  • on average the EU is using energy more efficiently, but is still not reducing energy consumption in absolute terms; and thirdly
  • households’ contribution to environmental pressures is often overlooked.

“Annual environmental reviews do not generally reveal dramatic changes in the state of the environment; their value lies in the identification of underlying trends and expectations of change, and the provision of early warnings of potential concerns,” said Jiménez-Beltrán. Although there have been no major changes since the report was published two years ago, conditions for future change are emerging at the political level in the EU, he said. This includes the adoption of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy, and the finalisation of the Sixth Environment Action Programme.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie