Mixed forecast for Europe’s environment

A detailed report looking at the state of the environment in Europe over the past five years shows that progress has been made in many areas but the continued threat of climate change overshadows the success stories.

The European Environment – State and Outlook 2005 is the culmination of years of investigation by the Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency.

The document is the pan-European equivalent to the EA’s State of the Environment report (see related story), with both released every five years to give an overview of recent changes.

It looks at the environment in 31 countries and highlights areas of concern as well as flagging up success stories.

Topping the bill of challenges identified is climate change.

While that will come as a surprise to few people, the report does bring together a host of startling statistics that put the scale of the problem in perspective.

The report says that the four hottest years on record were all in the last decade – 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004 – and ten percent of Alpine glaciers disappeared during the summer of 2003 alone.

At current rates, three quarters of Switzerland’s glaciers will have melted by 2050.

During the 20th Century Europe’s average temperature rose by 0.95 degrees Celsius, 35% higher than the global average increase of 0.7 degrees and temperatures will continue to rise.

Europe has not seen climate changes on this scale for 5,000 years.

Policy makers, businesses and individuals must act now on a range of environmental matters or pay a heavy price later, says the report.

“Without effective action over several decades, global warming will see ice sheets melting in the north and the spread of deserts from the south,” said Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the EEA.

“The continent’s population could effectively become concentrated in the centre. Even if we constrain global warming to the EU target of a 2 degree increase, we will be living in atmospheric conditions that human beings have never experienced. Deeper cuts in emissions are needed.”

There is also good news in the report, which claims past EU legislation on environment has worked.

The continent has cleaned up its water and its air, phased out some ozone depleting substances and doubled rates of waste recycling.

Europeans are also driving cars that pollute less – without the dramatic improvements made by catalytic converters over the past twenty years, certain emissions would have been ten times the level they are now.

The report warns against complacency, however, pointing out that it has taken ten to twenty years for these actions to show results.

It also says these environmental success stories are now being overtaken by social changes that are leading to a larger environmental footprint per person.

Europeans are living longer and more of us live alone putting greater demands on living space.

Between 1990 and 2000 more than 800,000 hectares of greenfield land was built on, an area three times the size of Luxembourg.

If this trend continues, the continent’s urban area will double in just over a century, increasing pressure on the remaining natural resources.

Transport, and aviation in particular, is also cause for concern with Europeans travelling further and more often and consuming the planet’s natural resources at twice the world’s average rate.

Transport is the fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Air travel is expected to double between now and 2030. As a result, Europeans are leaving a clear footprint beyond the continent’s borders, depleting natural resources and damaging the world’s environment.

Polls show that over 70% of Europeans want decision makers to give equal weight to environmental, economic and social policies.

To take these views into account, the report underlines that policy makers must work with each other at European, national and local levels.

They must integrate environmental considerations across sectors such as transport, agriculture and energy and set up a framework within which individuals and business can take action, it says.

“Policy makers must be farsighted,” said Prof McGlade.

“We need a gradual shift away from taxes on labour and investment towards taxes on pollution and the inefficient use of materials and land.

“We also need reforms in the way that subsidies are applied to transport, housing, energy and agriculture.

“We need subsidies encouraging sustainable practices and efficient technologies.

“With the necessary incentives built in, such reforms will lead to more investment, innovation and competitiveness. We’ve already seen this in practice in certain countries and sectors.

“Strong taxation of petrol in Europe and high regulatory standards led to cars that have been almost twice as fuel efficient as cars on America’s roads, in recent decades.

“We have seen the cost of inaction in terms of people’s lives and our environment with examples such as the collapse of fish stocks, the use of asbestos in buildings, acid rain and lead in petrol. It pays to act now to secure the long term.”

By Sam Bond

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