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Sound and independent information
on the environment

Problems

Environmental problems require an integrated approach for their appraisal, cutting across the media, pressures and human activities. This section highlights 12 problems of particular European concern, focusing on their causes and the goals and strategies being adopted to tackle them.

27 Climate change

Deals with the potential impacts in Europe of the enhanced greenhouse effect caused by a rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which is already 50% more than in pre-industrial times. The chapter discusses the causes of the problem, the consequences (in terms of changed climatic patterns, sea level rise, effects on hydrology, threats to ecosystems and land degradation), and the international strategies being used to try to limit temperature rises.

The greenshouse effect

  • an effective doubling of CO2 concentrations is now expected by about the year 2030, producing an estimated temperature rise of 1.5 to 4.5 C
  • 'best guesses' of the effects in Southern Europe give a temperature rise of 2 _C in winter and 2-3 C in summer
  • wetter winters are expected to lead to more flooding
  • international strategies do not yet address the proposed sustainable goal of limiting temperature rises to not more than 0.1 C per decade


28 Stratospheric ozone depletion

Analyses the problem of stratospheric ozone depletion caused by the release of the chemicals known as chloro- and bromofluorocarbons, used as refrigerants, industrial cleaners, foaming agents and fire extinguishers. Consequences include possible changes in atmospheric circulation and increased UV-B radiation on the Earth's surface which may lead to increased levels of skin cancer, eye cataracts and effects on ecosystems and materials. The measures necessary to minimize ozone depletion are discussed.


Changes in average ozone concentrations in Europe (WMO)



Calculated atmospheric clorine concentrations
between 1950 and 1990 (RIVM)

  • ozone concentrations have declined at mid-latitudes over Europe by 6-7% during the past decade
  • Europe contributes about one-third of global annual emissions of ozone-depleting substances
  • skin cancer deaths due to increased UV-B radiation are expected to reach two per million inhabitants by the year 2030
  • even if the London Protocol to the Vienna Convention is fully implemented, it will be at least 70 years before ozone depletion stops

29 The loss of biodiversity

Reviews the extent of biological diversity in Europe, and the reasons for its decline on a continent where human influence are particularly pervasive. The chapter outlines a series of goals that should lead to the conservation of biodiversity an the sustainable use of biological resources, and strategies fm achieving these goals, including implementation of the Convention on Biodiversity.

  • European ecosystems include more than 2 500 habitat types and some 215 000 species, of which 90% are invertebrates
  • almost every European country has endemic species (that are found nowhere else)
  • European centres of biodiversity include the Mediterranean Basin and the Caucasus Mountains on the southeastern margin of Europe
  • since the ecological roles of many species are largely unknown, the wisest course is to adopt the precautionary principle of avoiding any actions that needlessly reduce biodiversity
Representative site of natural European ecosystem groups: aggregated total area, and area where management problems and stress. pose potential threat to biodiversity


30 Major accidents

Reviews the environmental problems caused by accidents an the attention that has been given to trying to set acceptable risk levels, for both human health and the environment. Risk management is analysed, focusing on the magnitude of the probability that it will occur. The consequences of an accident and the need for industry to assess its own risks and to u integrated safety management systems and audit tools is discussed. Emergency response or contingency plans are discussed in both national and transboundary situations. The chapter concludes with a special section on the causes o nuclear accidents, and strategies for avoiding them.

  • the availability of accident statistics is a key factor improving the capability to reduce risks through safety management
  • goal setting requires identifying acceptable risk levels: in the Netherlands, for example, processes that have a probability of causing ten deaths more frequently than once every 100 000 years are considered unacceptable
  • the specific problems of nuclear safety in Central and Eastern Europe are being tackled by a strategy of assistance by 24 countries


31 Acidification

 

Combustion of fossil fuels emits sulphur and nitrogen dioxides into the atmosphere where the gases are converted into acids which, after deposition, lead to a series of undesired changes in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The chapter focuses on the adverse chemical and biological effects found in lakes, soils and forests as a result of deposition of acidifying substances in amounts exceeding critical loads. Possibilities for reducing emissions through international agreements are discussed.

  • severe acidification of freshwater is occurring over large areas of southern Scandinavia, causing widespread fish kills
  • coniferous forests are being damaged in the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland and the Slovak Republic probably as a result of acidification and high concentrations of ozone and sulphur dioxide in the air
  • acid deposition is expected to decrease in Europe following emission reductions but in more than half the area, critical loads will still be exceeded


Relative comparison of source categories to potential acid deposition, 1990 (RIVM)


32 Tropospheric ozone and other photochemical oxidants

Reviews the complex reactions that occur in the lower atmosphere producing oxidants such as ozone from the main precursors - nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, methane and carbon monoxide. Levels of these oxidants are increasing, and are having adverse effects on human health. They can also affect materials such as paint and plastics, crop and possibly forests. In the northern hemisphere ozone concentrations are expected to keep rising at 1% a year. No limiting goals have yet been set and the actions already undertaken are not thought to be sufficient in Europe.

  • WHO Air Quality Guidelines for ozone are frequently exceeded in most parts of Europe

  • there is no chemical in the atmosphere where the difference between actual and toxic levels is as marginal as that for ozone

  • at ground level, photochemical oxidants including ozone, can cause premature ageing of the lungs, eye, nose and throat irritation, chest discomfort, coughs and headaches

33 The management of freshwater resources


 
 
  • water pollution and deterioration of aquatic habitats are severely hampering the use of water for human consumption and wildlife
  • much water is lost in the distribution system and although 25-30% losses are estimated for France, the United Kingdom and Spain, the figure may reach 50_N
  • regarding water as an economic good could benefit water management through appropriate pricing
European water demand, 1950 - 2000

The regional distribution of problems concerning European water resource - such as the imbalance of water availability and demand, the destruction of aquatic habitats, and water pollution - is highlighted and discussed in relation to the pressures arising from human activities in the catchment areas. A series of sustainable goals for water resource management has been proposed, along with the means of reaching them. Particular attention is devoted to the necessity of international cooperation for management of transboundary rivers.

34 Forest degradation

This chapter focuses on the two most important causes of forest degradation across Europe: air pollution, which seriously threatens the sustainability of forest resources in Central, Eastern and, to a lesser extent, Northern Europe; al fire, a major concern in Southern Europe. The analysis of the, damage is derived from large-scale spatial observations of European-wide surveys. However, they do not readily permit cause-effect relationships to be identified. Detailed monitoring could improve understanding. For fires, causes are often related to socioeconomic factors which render the control o the causes complex since they often indicate conflicts and tensions in the overall system of land management.

  • a 1992 survey of 113 tree species in 34 European countries showed that 24% of trees were damaged in that defoliation exceeded 25%; 10% of trees were suffering from discoloration
  • as much as 54% of the forests of the Czech Republic may have suffered irreversible damage
  • an average of 700 000 ha of wooded land are burnt each year by a total of 60 000 fires in Europe


Average annual number of forest fires 1989-91 (Ministerial Conference of Helsinki)


35 Coastal zone threats and management

Highlights the importance of coastal zones as a buffer between the land and the sea, and examines how human activities creating physical modifications of the coastline and emissions of contaminants have led to the deterioration of habitats and water quality. In order to alleviate the serious environmental problems found in many coastal areas, a strategy for integrated coastal zone management has been proposed. This strategy takes into account the importance of coasts for human well-being and, at the same time, provides the habitats that plants and animals require.

  • the European coastline, which is at least 148 000 km long, has an estimated 200 million people living within so km of it
  • marine pollution of the coastal zone is a serious problem in all of Europe's seas
  • no comprehensive coastal zone management scheme yet exists for Europe
 
 
 
Coastal evolution in the EU(1991)
 


36 Waste production and management

 

Analyses the increasingly severe problem of waste disposal and processing caused by steady increases in both the quantity of wastes and in their toxic component. Despite increased emphasis on waste prevention and recycling, most European waste is disposed of by landfill and incineration. Waste control options are discussed, pointing out that in spite of progress achieved most waste still escapes control or avoids strict regulations by transfrontier movement across European countries or to developing ones. Strategies to minimize waste generation and ensure safe management are seen as crucial to move towards sustainable patterns of production and consumption.



Waste disposal costs (in $/tonne)


  • Europe produces more than 250 million tonnes of municipal waste and more than 850 million tonnes of industrial waste annually
  • in the OECD countries of Europe there are 10 000 annual transfrontier movements, totalling 2 million tonnes, of hazardous waste
  • more than 55 000 contaminated sites have been registered in just six European countries, and the total contaminated area in Europe is estimated to be between 47 000 and 95 000 km2 including 1000-3000 km2 of contamination from landfill


37 Urban stress

Urban areas in Europe show increasing signs of environmental stress, notably in the form of poor air quality, excessive noise and traffic congestion. On the other hand cities absorb increasing amounts of resources and produce increasing amounts of emissions and waste. This chapter analyses the causes of urban stress and their link to the rapid changes in urban lifestyles and patterns of urban development which have occurred in the last few decades. A series of goals and means to achieve sustainable urban patterns in Europe are discussed including: improved urban planning; integrated transport management; efficient use of water, energy and materials; the setting of new standards and improvement of information.

  • urban traffic is an increasingly important source of air pollution causing most of the summer smog in European cities and the exceeding WHO Air Quality Guidelines for ozone, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide
  • urban transport accounts for about 30% of total energy use in most cities and a shift has occurred towards the use of the car which fulfils more than 80% of total mechanized transport
  • a Charter of European Cities and Towns Towards Sustainability was signed by 80 local authorities in May 1994 at Aalborg, Denmark

38 Chemical risk

Few environmental problems in Europe cannot be traced back to some form of excessive chemical loading, and this chapter reviews the problems this causes and the ways of reducing the danger. The goal is to reduce levels of chemicals in the environment to a target, low-risk level where only negligible harmful effects occur to both the population and the environment. The EU has adopted a far-reaching programme designed to reduce risks from chemicals in the environment.

  • more than 10 million chemical compounds have been identified, of which about 100 000 are produced commercially
  • during June 1993 to June 1994 an EU programme completed the assessment of 1 700 chemicals produced or imported in amounts of more than 1 000 tonnes a year
  • Progressive achievement of reduced chemical risk to the environment (Dutch Ministry of Housing, Physical Planning and Environment)
 

Progressive achievement of reduced chemical risk to the environment (Dutch Ministry of Housing, Physical Planning and Environment)

 
 

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