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You are here: Home / News / Water: nutrient and heavy metal pollution 'decoupling' from growth

Water: nutrient and heavy metal pollution 'decoupling' from growth

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European households are generating lower levels of nutrient pollution in water, despite a growing population. In a similar example of 'absolute decoupling', levels of some pollutants from agriculture and manufacturing have fallen in recent years, while the economic production of these sectors has grown.

 Image © Guilherme Cecilio

These trends are highlighted in a series of new indicators published by the European Environment Agency (EEA), which look at various economic aspects of water pollution and water use in Europe.

The three indicators look at pollutant emissions from the agricultural sector, households and manufacturing industries, comparing this pollution to economic factors.

'Absolute decoupling' is the implicit aim of many environmental policies, meaning economic growth continues while environmental impacts decrease. 'Relative decoupling' is often used to describe a situation where environmental impacts continue to increase, but at a lower rate than growth.

The data suggests that Europe is generally moving in the right direction in reducing nutrient pollution of water, a major cause of eutrophication. It is still a significant pollution problem, however. Manufacturing industries have also significantly cut their emissions of heavy metals to water between 2004 and 2010, the data shows.

However, at the national level a handful of countries do not show an absolute decoupling trend, either with falling rates of productivity or increasing pollutant emission levels.

The interactive graph below have been made using DaViz, an online plug-in developed by the EEA. It is free and open source. For more interactive graphs, check the indicators below.

 

See all indicators

 

Related content

Related indicators

Emission intensity of manufacturing industries in Europe (WREI 003) - Assessment published Feb 2014 Emission intensity of manufacturing industries in Europe (WREI 003) - Assessment published Feb 2014 Absolute decoupling of manufacturing industries ´nutrient emissions from the GVA is observed in 9 countries (Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Hungary,  Netherland, Spain and Portugal). Decrease in emission coupled with decrease in GVA occurred in United Kingdom, France, Italy and Sweden. However in all cases the rate of emission decrease was greater than the one of GVA.  Increase of nutrient emission despite drop in gross value added was observed in Belgium.  The developments arise from different absolute levels of emission intensities and depend on no major changes in the data coverage during the period within the countries, such as including more facilities in the latest year reporting despite already existing in earliest year. It should be noted that as some industrial emissions may vary considerable from year to year, the comparison of two selected years, only, may be subject to variations not being representative for a consistent trend. Absolute decoupling of manufacturing industries ´heavy metals emissions from the GVA is observed again in 10 countries (Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Netherland, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain and Portugal). Decrease in emission coupled with decrease in GVA occurred in United Kingdom, France, Italy, Belgium and Sweden. In all cases the rate of emission decrease was greater than the one of GVA.  Increase of  emission despite drop in GVA was observed in Finland.  Given the multiple factors that affect both sectoral GVA and the pollution pressure originating from manufacturing, it is complicated to draw direct relationships between these two variables. Some key descriptors which could aid in explaining the behaviour of these are the structure of the sector (e.g., facility size distribution, production technology, relative proportion reported as E-PRTR releases) , the socioeconomic characteristics (e.g. salary levels) of the area and the policy measures in place (e.g., treatment requirements). However, it must be noted that the specific context of each country could result in varying combinations of the mentioned factors and their aggregate effects.
Emission intensity of domestic sector  in Europe (WREI 002) - Assessment published Feb 2014 Emission intensity of domestic sector in Europe (WREI 002) - Assessment published Feb 2014 Absolute decoupling of nutrient emissions from domestic sector and the population growth over the period of almost two decades (1990-2009) is observed in thirteen countries (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Finland, Ireland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia and Turkey). The actual extent of decoupling, and the differences in trends among countries, may be partially explained by different levels of numbers of inhabitants connected to tertiary wastewater treatment technologies When making the EU wide comparison of the extend of decoupling of nutrient emissions from population growth, the actual rate of population connected to different types of treatment (elaborated in the CSI 024) should be taken into consideration, and completeness of the data available on population connected to collecting systems without treatment. The status of the implementation of the UWWTD which protects the water environment from the adverse effects of discharges of urban waste water, the level of investment in the water and wastewater management ,as well as the status of the implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and Groundwater Directive may have an impact.   Furthermore household patterns as well as the household income level  affecting the production and composition of waste water should be considered as well. It is assumed that the use of actual data on loads discharged from wastewater treatment plants combined with the load values calculated for population not connected to the waste water treatment would add value to the decoupling indicator, as it would better reflect the real situation..  
Emission intensity of agriculture  in Europe (WREI 001) - Assessment published Feb 2014 Emission intensity of agriculture in Europe (WREI 001) - Assessment published Feb 2014 Nitrogen emission to water: Absolute decoupling of nitrogen emissions from GVA is observed in seven countries (Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia ). This means that these countries succeeded in economy growth while reducing emissions to water. As the area of agriculture land remained constant during the analyzed period, the decrease in emission can be attributed to decrease in specific gross nutrient balance per hectare. Relative decoupling was observed in the Czech Republic, and Poland. This means that the resource efficiency has increased, however with higher absolute emissions.  Decreases in emissions coupled with a decrease in GVA occurred in 11 countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom). In six out of those 11 countries, the rate of emission decrease was greater than the rate of the GVA decrease. Phosphorus emission to water: Absolute decoupling of phosphorus emissions from the GVA is observed in five countries (Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, and Slovenia). Decrease in emission coupled with decrease in GVA occurred in ten countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom). In all these countries except Denmark, the rate of emission decrease was greater than the rate of the decrease of GVA. The ranges of nutrient emission intensity of agriculture are quite wide and reflect varieties of agriculture practices across European countries. Values of nitrogen emission intensity for 2008 range from 6,0 to 176 tons of total nitrogen per million EUR GVA per year. Significant decrease in nitrogen emission intensity between 2000 and 2008 was recorded in Bulgaria, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. In 2008 Bulgaria, Portugal and Romania reported (in Eurostat) the lowest values of the specific nitrogen balance per hectare. In creased emission intensity was observed in Denmark, Ireland and United Kingdom, however, this was due to a falling GVA not to emissions, which actually were reduced. Calculation of emission intensity based on GVA diminished by subsidies, which reflects better the actual economic performance from  agriculture, result in much higher emission intensities for countries, e.g.,  Norway, Finland , Lithuania and Poland with relatively high contributions from subsidies to the economy.. The increment in emission intensity associated with excluding subsidies is significant namely in Norway (106 t/mio EUR/y) and Finland (38,8 t/mio EUR/y). The 2008 values for total phosphorus emission intensity range from 0,47 to 13,03 tons per million EUR GVA per year. Significant decrease in the phosphorus emission intensity (decrease by more than 50%) over the last decade was recorded in nine countries (Austria, Belgium, Czech republic, Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Slovenia). Moreover, Austria, Germany, France, Luxembourg and Portugal, reported (Eurostat) the lowest values of the specific phosphorus balance per hectare comparable to the EU-27 average, being 1 kg of total phosphorus per hectare per year. The impact of subsidies on phosphorus emission intensity (based on 2008 data), was most significant in Norway and Finland, where the increment in emission intensity associated with excluding subsidies accounted for 16,24 and 3,49 t/mio EUR/y respectively , whereas the increment in remaining countries did not exceed 1 t/mio EUR/y. Subsidies: The analysis of subsidies on the output of the agricultural industry for the studied years showed that 13 countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Slovenia and the United Kingdom) reduced the proportion of subsidies in relation to the GVA of their agricultural sector between 2000 and 2008. On the other hand, 5 countries (Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia) increased this proportion during the same period. Information was incomplete for Bulgaria and Germany, where subsidy levels for years 2000 and 2008 respectively were reported as zero (Eurostat). Noteworthy is the sharp increase in the proportion of subsidies as part of GVA  (being in the range between 12-26 % of GVA) in new Member States like Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia accompanied by the increase of GVA values. And, on the other hand, the significant reductions in old Member States like Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Given the multiple factors that affect both the change in sectoral GVA and in nutrient balance, it is complicated to draw direct relationships between these two variables. Some key descriptors which could aid in explaining the behavior of these are the structure of the sector (e.g. farm size, standard gross margins, crop type, stocking rate), the socioeconomic characteristics of the area (e.g. rural population, income and employment levels) and the policy measures in place (e.g. subsidies). However, it must be noted that the specific context of each country could result in varying combinations of the mentioned factors and their aggregate effects.    
Dynamic

Temporal coverage

2004-2010

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