Average global air and ocean temperatures are rising, leading to the melting of snow and ice and rising global mean sea level. Ocean acidification results from higher CO2 concentrations. With unabated greenhouse gas emissions, climate change could lead to an increasing risk of irreversible shifts in the climate system with potentially serious consequences. Temperature rises of more than 1.5–2 °C above pre-industrial levels are likely to cause major societal and environmental disruptions in many regions. The atmospheric CO2 concentration needs to be stabilised at 350–400 parts per million (ppm) in order to have a 50 % chance of limiting global mean temperature increase to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels (according to the IPCC in 2007, and confirmed by later scientific insights).
The EU emitted close to 5 billion tonnes (Gt) of CO2-equivalent emissions in 2008. It contributes today around 12 % of annual global anthropogenic direct greenhouse gas emissions. The EU is making good progress towards achieving its emission reduction targets. A rapid, sustained and effective transition to a low carbon economy is necessary to mitigate climate change and to meet global greenhouse gas emission targets.
Climate change is happening and will continue to have far-reaching consequences for human and natural systems. Impacts and vulnerabilities differ considerably across regions, territories and economic sectors in Europe. Strategies to adapt to climate change are necessary to manage impacts even if global temperature stays below a 2 °C increase above the pre-industrial level. The EU adaptation framework aims at developing a comprehensive strategy by 2013, to be supported by a clearinghouse for sharing and maintaining information on climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptation.
Biodiversity — the variety of ecosystems, species and genes — is essential to human wellbeing, delivering services that sustain our economies and societies. Its huge importance makes biodiversity loss all the more troubling. European species are threatened with extinction and overexploitation. Natural habitats continue to be lost and fragmented, and degraded by pollution and climate change. Despite actions taken and progress made, these threats continue to impact biodiversity in Europe. The new global and EU targets to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2020 are ambitious but achieving them will require better policy implementation, coordination across sectors, ecosystem management approaches and a wider understanding of biodiversity's value.
Land use shapes our environment in positive and negative ways. Productive land is a critical resource for food and biomass production and land use strongly influences soil erosion and soil functions such as carbon storage. Land management largely determines the beauty of Europe's landscapes. It is important therefore to monitor land cover and land-use change through tools such as Corine land cover. Data on land-cover change in Europe from 2000–2006 show that growth in built-up areas and forest land leads to a continued loss of agricultural land. In turn, global economic and environmental change will increasingly influence the way Europeans use land (e.g. as communities work to mitigate and adapt to climate change). Policy responses are needed to help resolve conflicting land-use demands and to guide land-use intensity to support environmental land management.
Nearly all of the food and fibres used by humans are produced on soil. Soil is also essential for water and ecosystem health. It is second only to the oceans as a global carbon sink, with an important role in the potential slowing of climate change. Soil functions depend on a multitude of soil organisms which makes it an important part of our biodiversity. Nevertheless, soil in many parts of Europe is being over-exploited, degraded and irreversibly lost due to impacts from industrial activities and land use change, leading to soil sealing, contamination, erosion and loss of organic carbon. Due to these problems, legislation for the protection of soils has been proposed at EU level.
European marine regions include the north-east Atlantic and Arctic oceans, and the Mediterranean, Black and Baltic seas. Human activities — such as fishing, aquaculture and agriculture — and climate change cause large and severe impacts on Europe's coastal and marine ecosystems. The EU objective of halting biodiversity loss by 2010 has not been met in either the coastal or the marine environment. Recognising the need for an integrated ecosystem-based approach to reduce pressures, the EU Integrated Maritime Policy allows for the development of sea-related activities in a sustainable manner. Its environmental pillar, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, aims to deliver 'good environmental status' of the marine environment by 2020, and the Common Fisheries Policy will be reformed in 2012 with the aim of achieving sustainable fisheries. Complementary policy efforts include the EU Water Framework Directive and other freshwater legislation, and the Habitats and Birds Directives.
The consumption of goods and services in EEA member countries is a major driver of global resource use and associated environmental impacts. Growth in global trade is resulting in an increasing share of environmental pressures and impacts from European consumption taking place beyond Europe. Food and drink, housing, mobility and tourism are responsible for a large part of the pressures and impacts caused by consumption in the EU. Achieving significant reductions in environmental pressures and impacts will require changing private and public consumption patterns, to supplement gains achieved through better technology and improved production processes.
The European economy needs huge amounts of resources to function. Apart from consuming minerals, metals, concrete and wood, Europe burns fossil fuels and uses land to satisfy the needs of its citizens. Demand for materials is so intense that between 20 and 30 % of the resources we use are now imported. At the other end of the materials chain, the EU economy generates around six tons of waste per person every year. With the boom in international trade, EU consumption and production may potentially damage ecosystems and human health not only within but also far beyond its borders.
Europe's freshwaters are affected by water scarcity, droughts, floods and physical modifications. Many water bodies are at risk of failing to meet the aim of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) to achieve good status by 2015. Future policies should encourage demand management through actions such as increasing water efficiency. In addition, water management will benefit from applying an ecosystems perspective, using floodplains and groundwater aquifers for storing water, and making room (space) for rivers.
The continuing presence of a range of pollutants in a number of Europe's freshwaters threatens aquatic ecosystems and raises concerns for public health. Current reporting under the EU Water Framework Directive shows that a substantial proportion of Europe's freshwaters are at risk of not achieving the aim of 'good status' by 2015. Driven by the EU Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive (UWWTD), improvements in the collection and treatment of wastewater in some regions of Europe have led to a reduction in the discharge of some pollutants to fresh and coastal waters. Challenges remain, however, because UWWTD implementation remains incomplete and other significant sources of water pollution exist, especially agriculture and urban storm flows. The implementation of effective and timely measures, required under the WFD, needs to encompass a greater focus on controls 'at source' and the efficient use of resources including water, energy and chemicals.
Emissions of air pollutants derive from almost all economic and societal activities. They result in clear risks to human health and ecosystems. In Europe, policies and actions at all levels have greatly reduced anthropogenic emissions and exposure but some air pollutants still harm human health. Similarly, as emissions of acidifying pollutants have reduced, the situation for Europe's rivers and lakes has improved but atmospheric nitrogen oversupply still threatens biodiversity in sensitive terrestrial and water ecosystems. The movement of atmospheric pollution between continents attracts increasing political attention. Greater international cooperation, also focusing on links between climate and air pollution policies, is required more than ever to address air pollution.
The global population is congregating in our cities. Eighty per cent of the world’s estimated nine billion people in 2050 are expected to live in urban areas. Our cities and urban areas face many challenges from social to health to environmental. The impacts of cities and urban areas are felt in other regions which supply cities with food, water and energy and absorb pollution and waste. However, the proximity of people, businesses and services associated with the very word ‘city’ means that there are also huge opportunities. Indeed, well designed, well managed urban settings offer a key opportunity for sustainable living.
SOER 2010 includes 13 Europe-wide thematic assessments of key environmental themes:
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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