Europe’s environmental trends are pointing in the wrong direction

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has published its first annual report of environmental indicators used to assess European progress towards sustainable development. Presented as a 'draft' version whose structure will be amended and re-visited in the coming years, the report makes gloomy reading.


Environmental Signals 2000 is the EEA’s attempt to measure overall environmental progress as well as to compare progress rates between EU member states.

At pains to point out that the industrial sectors and indicators highlighted in this first report may not be included in the next, the EEA assesses the following:

  • integration of environmental performance targets into industrial sectors – “The restricted selection of indicators used in the present report points to movements away from targets in the transport and energy sectors; in both sectors price incentives run counter to the targets. In agriculture, the indicators suggest continued intensification on the one hand and an increase in agri-enviornmental management (in limited areas) on the other [see related story]”
  • energy use – “Energy use in EEA member countries increased during the period 1985-97. Real prices were at low levels for almost all fuels, which may partly explain why we consume so much energy. At the same time, energy taxes have not compensated for the underlying fall in energy prices”
  • energy sector – “Fossil fuels are still the predominant energy source for electricity production. Nuclear power is an important source in a number of EEA countries. Despite recent high growth rates in wind and solar power in a few member states, renewable energy sources contribute little [see related story]. Hydro power (mostly large hydro plants) remains the main renewable energy source. Use of combined heat and power, despite significant developments in a small number of member states, remains low compared to the EU target [see related story]”
  • transport – “Rapidly growing transport volumes, especially for road transport and aviation, have offset environmental gains from technology improvements. Current transport revenues only partly cover the significant external costs of the sector and current prices tend to favour private road transport over public transport”
  • agriculture – “Agriculture has become more environmentally efficient overall, but pressures seem to remain at the same level. This is mainly due to continuing intensification – and the resultant use of large and environmentally-critical amounts of pesticide and fertiliser. On the other hand, the area of agricultural land under management contracts or farmed organically has increased”
  • industry – “Manufacturing industry is becoming more specialised and focused on value added products. These developments, together with many years of regulatory controls, have led to an increase in eco-efficiency for the main air pollutants”
  • climate change – “Total greenhouse gas emissions have increased since 1990 in most EEA member countries and are projected to increase in the EU by six percent between 1990 and 2010. Additional policies and measures are required to achieve the Kyoto Protocol targets. Substantial additional reductions in global emissions will be needed to reach potentially ‘sustainable’ temperature levels and concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere”
  • stratospheric ozone depletion – “The thickness of the ozone layer above Europe has decreased significantly since the beginning of the 1980s and is declining at a rate of up to 8% per decade [see related story]. The gradual fall in chlorine concentrations in the troposphere shows that international policies are having success. However, the long life of these substances means that recovery of the ozone layer may not be complete until after 2050. The remaining policy challenges for European countries are to tighten control measures, to reduce the production and use of HCFCs and methyl bromide, to manage banks of existing ozone-depleting substances, and to support developing countries in their efforts to reduce their use and emissions”
  • air pollution – “Despite a decline in emissions of general air pollutants, the ultimate goal of avoiding all harmful effects on health, vegetation, water and soil has still to be achieved. The area where the critical load of acidifying emissions is exceeded has fallen significantly, but substantial parts of the population in EEA member countries are exposed to unacceptable concentrations of ground-level ozone and fine particles. The proposed EU and national 2010 targets for sulphur dioxide appear achievable, but reaching those for nitrogen oxides, ammonia and volatile organic compounds will require substantial further reductions and additional policies and measures [see related story]”
  • waste – “Waste quantities are increasing, but de-linking of waste from economic activity has been achieved for some waste streams and countries. The amount of municipal waste generated is considerably higher than the target for 2000 … and a large proportion of biodegradable waste is still disposed of in landfills [see related story]. The use of waste taxes is increasing in member states, but they are not yet fully integrated into waste management strategies”
  • water quantity – “Water use by households and industry has decreased in many EEA member countries. However, water use for agriculture has increased, especially in southern Europe”
  • eutrophication – “The Urban Waste Water Directive and investment by EEA member countries in nutrient removal have reduced phosphorus discharges. Nitrogen pollution has been reduced to a far lesser extent, with the nitrogen surplus from agriculture staying at the same concentration as in 1990. Phosphorus concentrations in major rivers have fallen significantly over the last 15 years, but nitrate concentrations have remained constant and high. Nitrate concentrations in many groundwater supplies exceed limits set by the Drinking Water Directive [see related story]. Phosphorus concentrations in severely affected lakes have fallen significantly. Nutrient concentrations in coastal waters show little overall improvement”
  • wetlands -“Europe’s wetlands remain under severe pressure from land use and pollution. Many wetland areas border agricultural land and most are near transport infrastructure”
  • environmental taxes – “Since 1980, revenues from environmental taxes have been increasing slowly. Taxes on polluting activities and products in the EU are small and have not increased significantly over the past 15 years. Energy and transport taxes provide more than 90% of the total revenue from environmental taxes in most countries”
  • total material requirement – “Extraction of natural resources in EU member states declined by 12% between 1985 and 1995, but imported resources increased by eight percent between 1995 and 1997. In most member states, economic growth has been associated with increased Direct Material Input. However, Finland, France, Italy and the UK have reduced their dependence on Direct Material Input”

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