A strong environment as the basis for Europe's future economy

Article Published 12 Sep 2014 Last modified 31 Aug 2016, 02:55 PM
Europe selected its new policy makers. They will need to address not only today's challenges but also set in motion policies that will affect Europeans well beyond their five-year mandate. What do they need to do today to make sure that Europeans live well in the future? By taking action at the EU level and tackling environment and climate issues, EU policy makers can actually revive the economy and guarantee our long-term well-being.

 Image © Gülcin Karadeniz / EEA

Our economy, quality of life and health all depend on a healthy environment and a stable climate. To this end, the European Union and its Member States have adopted an extensive set of environmental legislation. Some of the results are very positive and encouraging: concentrations of a number of air pollutants decreased significantly, greenhouse gas emissions went down despite economic growth. Other results are more mixed, and much still remains to be addressed both in the EU and globally.

Environment does not stop at borders

Many of the environmental problems we observe today can be linked to the way we use resources in Europe and globally. And climate change often exerts additional pressure. Even in the case of a localised summer ozone episode, the affected area might be only partly responsible. Pollutants might have been released in another country, or even another continent, while producing consumer goods for export to meet the global demand. Certain climatic conditions contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, which then affect our health and the environment. Healthy life years are lost, medical costs go up, agricultural yields suffer…

It is also clear that air pollution or pollution in rivers can hardly be tackled by one country. Chemicals released upstream pursue their journey downstream, affecting the people and the economy along their way. Floods affect European river basins stretching over several countries.

Given the cross-border nature of environment and climate, the most effective solutions are the ones built on a strong guidance at EU level with clear targets and measures, and well-established institutions and instruments that stimulate cooperation. A clear policy vision outlined by EU policy makers and implemented by Member States does not only improve Europe’s environment, but often also enables the EU to inspire other countries and to have a greater impact globally on environment and climate issues.

But tackling environment and climate problems can also strengthen our economy.

Focusing on Europe’s highly skilled work force

Our economic recovery from the 2008 downturn is still very frail. Although some might perceive climate and environmental concerns and legislation as obstacles to recovery, they actually provide us an opportunity to address structural weaknesses inherent in our economy and boost competitiveness.

We need to acknowledge where our strengths are. And Europe’s economic strength does not lie in low labour costs or access to abundant and cheap natural resources. On the contrary, Europe has a highly skilled workforce and its economy relies on importing raw materials from the rest of the world. For some sectors such as energy, our dependence on imports risks severely undermining the economy.

In this context, our economic model needs to focus on our strengths while compensating for our weaknesses. In other words, investing in eco-innovation and new technologies can facilitate our transition to a green economy, reap the benefits of first-mover advantage and create jobs that cannot easily be relocated. For instance, energy efficiency and renewable energy sectors would create engineering jobs not only for start-up and operational phases, but also for maintenance.

Improving quality of life

The EU’s 7th Environment Action Programme recognises the limits we are facing as well as our ultimate objective – ‘living well’ within these limits.

We do not have to live in cities with high levels of air pollution or traffic jams. We can build cities that offer a good quality of life to their residents, clean air, green spaces, sustainable and easily accessible public transport systems, offices and homes built with latest energy-efficiency technologies.  

This requires integrating the ‘green economy thinking’ into all our policies and measures from urban planning, green infrastructure, transport and energy infrastructure, agriculture, waste management, product design, to education and research. A transition to green economy is the only viable way to ensure our long-term well-being and EU policy makers are in a unique position to guide and facilitate this transition.

Knowledge supports policy making  

Our role at the European Environment Agency is to contribute to the knowledge base needed for supporting policy making in Europe. We work very closely with our partners in the European Environmental Information and Observation Network (Eionet) from 39 European countries. We bring together data and knowledge at all levels, assess the state of the environment and the trends affecting it. We look into a wide range of environmental topics, including transport, energy, natural capital, resource efficiency, waste, biodiversity, climate vulnerability, environmental taxes, urban systems and land use.  

We hope that our knowledge base, including our upcoming assessment ‘European State of the Environment and Outlook Report 2015’ (SOER2015), will assist policy makers across Europe to make choices that improve our economy, protect and strengthen ecosystems and for a solid basis for the well-being of European citizens.

Hans

Hans BRUYNINCKX
Executive Director

Editorial published in the issue no. 2014/3 of the EEA newsletter, September 2014

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