Europe's environment 2015: Future prosperity depends on bolder steps in policy, knowledge, investments and innovation

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Press Release Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 03 Jun 2016, 05:01 PM
Europe's environment and climate policies have delivered substantial benefits, improving the environment and quality of life, while driving innovation, job creation and growth. Despite these gains, Europe still faces a range of persistent and growing environmental challenges. Addressing them will require fundamental changes in the systems of production and consumption that are the root cause of environmental problems.

 Image © EEA, Keith Arkins, Alexander Goranov

Our analysis shows that European policies have successfully tackled many environmental challenges over the years. But it also shows that we continue to harm the natural systems that sustain our prosperity. 

Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director

These are some of the key messages from the European Environment Agency's five-yearly assessment 'The European environment – state and outlook 2015' (SOER 2015), published today. SOER 2015 is an integrated assessment of Europe's environment. It also includes assessments and data at global, regional and country levels, as well as cross-country comparisons.

EU policies have delivered substantial benefits

Today, Europeans enjoy cleaner air and water, less waste is sent to landfill and more resources are recycled. However, Europe remains a long way from achieving the objective of 'living well within the limits of the planet' by 2050, as set out in the 7th Environment Action Programme. Although we use natural resources more efficiently than previously, we are still degrading the resource base that we rely on in Europe and across the world. Problems such as biodiversity loss and climate change remain major threats.

Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director, said: 'Our analysis shows that European policies have successfully tackled many environmental challenges over the years. But it also shows that we continue to harm the natural systems that sustain our prosperity. While living within planetary limits is an immense challenge, there are huge benefits in responding to it. Fully using Europe's capacity to innovate could make us truly sustainable and put us at the frontier of science and technology, creating new industries and a healthier society.'

SOER 2015 highlights the need for more ambitious policies to achieve Europe's 2050 vision. It also stresses the need for new approaches that respond to the systemic nature of many environmental problems. For example, external pressures, including global megatrends, can counteract specific policies and local environmental management efforts. In addition, many environmental challenges are closely linked to systems of production and consumption that support numerous jobs and livelihoods and changes to these systems create diverse costs and benefits. Moreover, efficiency improvements are often negated by increased consumption.

The report concludes that although full implementation of existing policies will be essential, neither the environmental policies currently in place, nor economic and technology-driven efficiency gains, will be sufficient to achieve Europe's 2050 vision.

Need to transform key systems

Addressing the complex challenges facing Europe will require more ambitious policies, alongside better knowledge and smarter investments, aimed at fundamentally transforming key systems such as food, energy, housing, transport, finance, health and education. It will necessitate strategies and approaches aimed at mitigating pressures and avoiding potential harm, restoring ecosystems, correcting socio-economic inequities, and adapting to global trends such as climate change and resource depletion.

Dr Bruyninckx continued: 'We have 35 years to ensure that we live on a sustainable planet by 2050. This may seem like a distant future, but to achieve our goal, we need to act now. We need our actions and investments to be even more ambitious and more coherent. Many of the decisions we make today will determine how we are going to live in 2050.'

SOER 2015: selected facts and trends

Natural capital

  • EU policies have reduced pollution and have significantly improved the quality of Europe's air and water. However, continued ecosystem degradation threatens Europe's economic output and well-being.
  • Biodiversity continues to be eroded. Sixty percent of protected species assessments and 77% of habitat assessments recorded an unfavourable conservation status. Europe is not on track to meet its 2020 target of halting biodiversity loss.
  • Fresh water quality has improved over recent years, however, around half of Europe's freshwater bodies are unlikely to attain 'good ecological status' in 2015.
  • Marine and coastal biodiversity is a particular area of concern. Pressures include sea floor damage, pollution, invasive alien species and acidification. Overfishing has decreased in the Atlantic and Baltic, but the Mediterranean shows a more negative picture, with 91% of assessed stocks overfished in 2014.
  • Less than 6% of Europe's farmed area was used for organic agriculture in 2012, with large differences between countries.
  • Looking ahead, climate change impacts are projected to intensify pressures and impacts and the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss are expected to persist.

Resource efficiency

  • Domestic resource consumption was 16.7 tonnes per person in 2007, declining to 13.7 tonnes in 2012, partly due to the collapse of the construction industry in some countries.
  • Waste management has improved in recent years, with less waste generated and less waste sent to landfill. Recycling rates increased in 21 countries between 2004 and 2012, while landfilling rates decreased in 27 out of 31 countries (for which data are available). EEA countries achieved an average recycling rate of 29% in 2012, compared to 22% in 2004.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by 19% since 1990 despite a 45% increase in economic output. Fossil fuel use has declined, as have emissions of some pollutants from transport and industry.
  • The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent economic difficulties also contributed to the reductions in some environmental pressures. It remains to be seen whether improvements will be sustained.
  • Currently agreed policies are not sufficient for Europe to achieve its long-term environmental goals, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95%.

Health and well-being

  • Environmental policies have brought improvements in drinking water and bathing water quality, and have reduced exposure to key hazardous pollutants.
  • Air and noise pollution continue to cause serious health impacts in urban areas. In 2011, about 430 000 premature deaths in the EU were attributed to fine particulate matter while noise exposure contributes to at least 10 000 premature deaths due to heart disease each year.
  • The growing use of chemicals, particularly in consumer products, has been associated with an observed increase of endocrine diseases and disorders in humans.
  • Projected improvements in air quality are not expected to be sufficient to prevent continuing harm, while impacts resulting from climate change are expected to worsen.
  • The environment industry sector grew by more than 50% from 2000 to 2011, and is one of the few sectors to have flourished in terms of revenues and jobs since the 2008 financial crisis. 

Notes to the editor

About the EEA

The European Environment Agency (EEA) is an agency of the European Union. It aims to support sustainable development and to help achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe's environment by providing timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information to policymaking agents and the public. It is supported in its work by the European environment information and observation network (Eionet), a network of 39 European countries.

About SOER 2015

'The European environment – state and outlook 2015' is made up of two reports and 87 online briefings. These comprise the 'Synthesis' report and the 'Assessment of global megatrends' report, complemented by 11 global megatrends briefings, 25 European briefings, nine cross-country comparison briefings, 39 country briefings (based on national state of environment reports), and three regional briefings.

SOER 2015:

  • Provides a comprehensive, integrated assessment of the European environment's state, trends and prospects in a global context.
  • Informs European environmental policy implementation between 2015 and 2020.
  • Analyses the opportunities to modify existing policies (and the knowledge used to inform those policies) in order to achieve the European Union's 2050 vision of living well within the limits of the planet.
  • It has been prepared as a joint undertaking in close collaboration with the Eionet, as well as European Commission services. In addition, several international organisations have been involved in the peer review of the assessment.

Geographic coverage

Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/99), Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, United Kingdom
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