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You are here: Home / News / Global megatrends shaping Europe's environment

Global megatrends shaping Europe's environment

Surging economic growth in many emerging economies is increasing global competition for resources and the burden on natural systems. The European Environment Agency (EEA) is analysing these changes and their implications for Europe’s environment in an updated assessment of 'global megatrends'.

 Image © Michael McDonough

Today the EEA has published two new chapters of its revised 'Assessment of global megatrends', following two published this year.

Global economic growth is projected to continue in coming decades, according to 'Continued economic growth?'. Emerging Asian economies are expected to play an ever larger role, with India and China together accounting for almost half of global output in 2050. The environmental and political implications of these changes will be significant.

As described in 'From a unipolar to a multipolar world', markets are becoming ever more integrated. Partly as a result of these changes, the global middle class population (associated with high per capita consumption levels) is expected to grow very rapidly — from 27 % of 6.8 billion people today to almost 60 % of 8.4 billion people in 2030.

The trends are likely to augment unprecedented levels of resource extraction, according to 'Intensified global competition for resources'. This has implications for Europe, which is heavily reliant on the imports of many materials, including more than half of its supply of metal ores, metal products, and fossil energy. Commodity prices more than doubled in real terms between 2000 and 2012, suggesting global resource demand is outpacing supply. Future projections are uncertain, however.

Energy may be in particularly high demand in coming decades. For example, South Korea's per capita oil consumption increased more than 25-fold as it rapidly transformed into an advanced economy in the last half century. If Brazil, China, India and Indonesia were to replicate this pattern of development with their much larger populations, global energy demand would be dramatically affected, the assessment says. However, it does point to some positive trends in some advanced economies, where GDP has continued to increase while energy demand has stabilised, albeit at high levels.

Many new technologies require critical raw materials – for example wind turbines, photovoltaic cells and electric car batteries all require some of the 14 raw materials listed as critical by the European Commission. Reserves of such materials are often concentrated in a few countries, the assessment says, increasing the uncertainty of future supplies and potentially constraining Europe's transition to a low carbon economy.

Pressures on ecosystems are also likely to intensify over the coming years – something explored in 'Growing demands on ecosystems'. For example, increasing wealth and growing populations are likely to boost meat demand, which is likely to intensify global competition for scarce land resources. This is reflected in a dramatically increasing number of large-scale transnational acquisitions of land during recent years, mostly in developing countries. Bioenergy production is also set to grow over the coming years. Both trends may mean forests and other habitats are converted to farmland.

Climate change is putting pressure on ecosystems, the assessment notes. There is a risk that thresholds may be passed, leading to systemic change. For example, rising temperatures could cause the Amazon basin to dry out, eventually causing the forest to die back to a savannah-like habitat.

Nonetheless, the assessments present several positive opportunities for the future. Although Europe's global influence may be shrinking in some areas, increasing integration means that environmental policies pioneered in the EU may also be taken up worldwide, the assessment says, citing the example of EU vehicle emissions standards which have been rapidly adopted in many Asian countries.

Background

Today's updates, addressing increasing global demand for resources, follow the publication in September of two chapters addressing global economic growth. A further seven chapters will be published in coming months.

The European environment's status, trends and prospects have always depended in part on events outside its borders. Moreover, the growing importance of global networks and flows has augmented this interdependence. The 11 global megatrends assessments will cover topics within the areas of society, environment, technology, economy, and governance.

In 2014 the chapters will be consolidated into a single EEA report and will provide the basis for the analysis of megatrends included in the EEA's next assessment of the European environment's state and outlook, 'SOER 2015'. The SOER is published every five years.

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