EEA Signals 2004

Speech Published 01 Jun 2004 Last modified 16 Oct 2014, 12:56 PM
Green Week - EEA Signals 2004

Brussels, 1 June 2004

EEA Signals 2004

Speech by Professor Jacqueline McGlade
Executive Director, European Environment Agency

Green Week conference, Brussels, 1 June 2004

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure for me to be here to present the European Environment Agency's latest annual survey of environmental trends in its 31 member countries, EEA Signals 2004, which is published today.

I would like to begin with two quotes that encapsulate how important the environment is to our everyday lives.

The first comes from Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, who said in March 2001 in the context of sustainable development:

"...It is said that we face a choice between economic growth and conservation [of the environment], when in fact growth cannot be sustained without [such] conservation."

The second comes from the business world, more precisely the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in 1992:

"The bottom line is that the human species is living more off the planet's capital and less off its interest...this is bad business..."

These quotes emphasise that it is not the environment that is dependent on economic growth (through "better management") and increasing social welfare (through "improved behaviour"), rather that we need the environment to support our welfare. The challenge we face is that present economic and welfare systems have been designed primarily to promote economic growth and need adapting to take account of the value of the environment and its natural capital. All of us, not just governments and industry, have a role to play in this, through changes in how we view economic development and manage our daily lives.

The recent months have seen the enlargement of the European Union, an event that has given Europe a new lease of life and created a Union which is a 1/4 larger in size and which has 1/5 more people than before. Everyone should have the opportunity to have an equal share of the benefits that accrue from this change while respecting the carrying capacity of the environment.

Social changes such as urbanisation and rural depopulation; the rapidly growing numbers of small households, and the changing consumption patterns that are associated with an aging population, will all continue to affect fundamentally the environment by changing the way we use and interact with environmental resources. The responsible management of Europe's environment and natural capital is essential to maintain its social and economic capital, both now and for the future.

It is in this wider context of progress towards sustainability that the EEA is launching the Signals report 2004. The aim of the report is to provide an accessible insight into selected topics, through a combination of environmental indicators and assessment. I would like now to share some of the main messages from the report which I hope will raise awareness and questions. If we achieve that then I think that the Agency will in part have fulfilled its remit.

Let's begin with the biggest issue of them all:

Climate change: Evidence of climate change is growing, both on land and in the oceans. Since 1900, the average temperature in Europe has increased by almost 1°C, compared with 0.7°C globally. Seasonal temperatures show greater variation than the annual average with implications for species survival and food production.

The major events in Europe's environment during 2003 were weather- and climate-related. The hot summer claimed possibly as many as 35 000 lives, mainly in southern Europe. Unusually low water flows were recorded in the Danube, the Rhine and other major rivers, in sharp contrast with the heavy flooding the summer before. Forest fires in the summer of 2003 in Portugal caused 15 deaths and cost an estimated EUR 925 million. It is estimated that in Europe around three-quarters of economic losses caused by catastrophic events result from weather- and climate-related events. A very conservative estimate of the annual average bill is about EUR 10 billion and rising.

As in the rest of the world, Europe's glaciers are in retreat. The exception is Norway where some coastal glaciers are increasing as climate changes bring more winter precipitation. For the rest of Europe the numbers are startling: the Alps lost a third of their glacial area and half their glacial mass between 1850 and 1970. Since 1980 a further 20-30% of the remaining ice has been lost. All the signs are that this trend will continue: predictions show that 75% of the glaciers in the Swiss Alps are likely to disappear by 2050.

Marine environments too are showing signs of change: in the North Sea for example cold water dwelling zooplankton species are being outnumbered by warm-water dwelling species as regional and global temperatures continue to rise. The changes are quite dramatic for two sensitive species: in 1960 the proportion of cold water species to warm water species abundance was around 60:40; by 2002 this had switched round dramatically to 20:80. Plankton species form the basis of marine ecosystems - such dramatic changes may have a cascading impact on the other parts of the marine ecosystem including fish stocks for example.

Nitrate pollution in water: Diffuse pollution from farming is still the main source of nitrate in water. Available evidence suggests that consumers are paying for most of the clean up costs for drinking water. Concentrations of nitrate are highest where large amounts of nitrogenous fertilisers and animal manure are used. In 2001, nitrate levels in rivers were three times higher where arable land predominates in river catchments compared with catchments where arable land covers less than 10%.

Organic agriculture has lower yields than conventional farming systems (that use fertilisers intensively) but reduces the risk of nitrate pollution of water and generally promotes more wildlife. Farmland bird populations have fallen substantially in recent decades mainly because of intensive farming practices, continuing a trend of rapid decline that began in the 1970s. Bird populations have not fallen as much in the 10 new member countries and the 3 candidate countries as in the EU-15, largely reflecting the less intensive farming we see in central and eastern Europe.

Across the EEA's 31 member countries, organic farming area is increasing: in the EU-15 and EFTA countries it accounted for some 4% of the total agricultural area in 2002; by contrast, in the new-EU and candidate countries the overall share remained below 1%, owing to relatively little state support and low consumer demand. However, since the overall intensity of farming in these countries is lower, yielding environmental benefits compared with agriculture in western Europe, the uptake of organic farming is arguably a less significant indicator of environmental performance in these countries than in the EU.

Once nitrate pollutes groundwaters it leaves an often long-lasting legacy of pollution for future generations. Over a third of European groundwater bodies now exceed nitrate guideline values. It is estimated that it is 5-10 times cheaper to reduce nitrate use than removing nitrate from polluted water (including drinking water), emphasising the economic and social benefits of prevention rather than cure.

Air pollution in cities: Much of Europe's urban population is still exposed to air pollution above health protection levels set by the European Union and the World Health Organization: particulates and ozone are the main concerns. About 1/3 of people in cities are estimated to be exposed to particulates pollution above protection levels and about 1/4 to ozone pollution above protection levels. High concentrations of such pollutants aggravate existing health problems such as asthma, and in the long term can contribute to breathing and heart problems.

On the plus side, there have been substantial reductions in emissions of many air pollutants, highlighting the success of European regulations and improvements in energy production methods, car technologies and transport fuel specifications. We now see that many of the established pollutants like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide have been brought under control especially through these measures. We also see that overall emissions of ozone and particulates pollutants fell by around 1/3 in the 1990s. In urban areas however, the improvements have been counterbalanced by pollution resulting from enormous increases in flows of passenger and freight transport. Transport is also the sector with the fastest growing greenhouse gas emissions, and so is also contributing to climate change.

Packaging waste: The production of such waste is closely aligned to economic growth and in particular trends in personal consumption. Volumes of such waste have been growing steadily (by 7% between 1997 and 2001) in most, if not all countries, and are projected to continue doing so substantially in future years. Now all of us have at some time or another bought goods that have been excessively packaged, but often we have little option but to do so. I am sure we can also remember times when we have chosen the excessive packaging item over the less packaged item. This indicates that we can do something about the problems ourselves through making correct choices, but that we also need more help from retailers and producers to make those choices as widely available as possible.

In the European Union there has been a directive since 1994 (revised in 2004) setting targets for recycling of packaging waste. The revised directive has the target that at least 55% of all packaging wastes be recycled by 2008. Several countries are a long way away from meeting this. Some including Cyprus, Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Slovakia will need to more than double by 2008 the proportion they recycled in 2002. The new-EU countries have been given more years to do so but still need support to meet the targets.

Packaging waste is among the best-documented waste streams but similar trends are evident for other waste streams such as municipal waste and construction waste. Available data suggest overall waste volumes are increasing and that the trends are unsustainable for Europe and probably across the world. The current policy tools for dealing with waste are inadequate, as indicated by the recycling of packaging waste, where despite countries achieving high targets, overall volumes continue to increase.

In general as we look ahead to world environment day on 5 June the key messages from this report clearly highlight the need to make further progress in managing the environmental impacts of agriculture, transport and energy in particular, as well as influencing changes in consumer behaviour.

This can be achieved by further increasing the use of market-based instruments to manage demand and fully incorporate environmental and other 'external' costs into prices, for example for transport; by switching more extensively to environmentally friendly subsidies, for example, for agriculture and energy; and by promoting further innovation, for example, for renewable energies. Similar instruments could also help address resource use and waste.

The benefits for the environment and human health of taking such action will be multi-dimensional, dealing with issues such as climate change, air pollution, biodiversity and water quality.

I would like to conclude by saying that we can now clearly see the consequences of our actions and foresee the consequences of future inaction. All of us can play a role in bringing about change across all domains using available tools and knowledge.

Thank you for your attention.

Sign up to receive our reports (print and/or electronic) and quarterly e-newsletter.
Follow us
European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100