3. Environmental Trends
3.1 Progress towards 5EAP Targets
The analysis of current status and trends and their relationship to targets set for each of the key environmental themes leads to the following conclusions:
- The 5EAP environmental targets for 1994/95 are expected to be reached for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons, nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and heavy metals.
- The European Union is set to meet 5EAP targets for the year 2000 in the following key areas (see Table 3.1.1):
- Sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions;
- production of Ozone Depleting Substances;
- carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, where - despite considerable uncertainties - the achievements for 2000 can be seen as a first step towards further reductions.
- In a number of other areas, the EU is heading in the right direction, but meeting targets in the following areas is far from assured:
- acidification, where widespread exceedance of critical loads will continue;
- VOCs, emissions of which are clearly reduced, but due to time lags in the implementation of directives, meeting targets by 2000 is not assured;
- waste management, where (despite current prevention policies) waste generation shows a steady increase and further improvements in recycling will be constrained by recycling costs and the lack of markets of secondary materials;
- nitrates, where standards for drinking water will be exceeded less often due to substantial reductions in the use of nitrogen in agriculture, but due to the longevity of nitrates in groundwater, the targets will not be met without denitrification of groundwater;
- urban environment, where environmental pressures (such as particulates emitted from vehicles, and wider problems in some cities), particularly those related to traffic continue to worsen in most cities;
- conservation and protection of
biodiversity, though an increasing number of areas are protected
for nature conservation objectives and impacts from agriculture will be
reduced as a result of changes in CAP and due to the agri-environment
measures, impacts from transport and tourism will worsen.
- Current policies are not sufficient to tackle a few key issues. These include:
- CO2 emissions after 2000;
- traffic related issues eg, NOx emissions and noise;
- water abstraction and the quality of marine water and groundwater (the latter particularly in respect of pesticides);
- chemicals in the environment;
- coastal zone management; and
- erosion and desertification.
Table 3.1.1: Assessment of environmental progress in achieving the 5EAP 2000 targets using nine performance indicators
|Index 1985 = 100||1985||1990||2000 target||Achievability target|
|Municipal waste per capita||100||115||100||-|
|Noise above 65dB(A)||100||>100||100||-/+|
|Pesticides in groundwater||100||>100||0e||-|
|Nitrate in groundwater||100||>100||0||-
+ likely that target will be achieved
a Including former eastern Germany
b In 1986
c By 1995
d By 1999
e By 2005
3.2 Findings for each environmental theme
The continuing and rapid increase in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases can cause climate change. There is a considerable time delay between a reduction of the emissions of these gases and stabilisation of atmospheric concentrations. After a period of steady increase, total emissions of CO2 (the most important greenhouse gas) fell between 1990 and 1993, partly due to the economic recession during these years. Although CO2 emissions from industry have decreased, emissions from the transport sector show an increase.
Achieving the target of stabilisation of EU CO2 emissions at 1990 levels by 2000 seems to be the cornerstone of EU environmental policy. There is, however, great uncertainty about whether the EU will meet this target (see Figure 3.2.1). The main causes of uncertainty are: continuous transport growth, continuing low energy prices, the slow improvement of energy efficiency and the fact that many of the measures in national programmes will not be completed before 2000. Current measures are insufficient to prevent a further increase in CO2 emissions after 2000 as a result of the expected growth of production, consumption and transport. To achieve the global quality objective, reductions in emissions by 1-2% per year are necessary, to which the industrialised countries are expected to make a reasonable contribution.
The ozone layer has been considerably depleted worldwide, caused by emissions of halogenated hydrocarbons, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons. At present, the problem is universally recognised and international negotiations on the tightening of limitations (eg, of CFC production as proposed in the Montreal protocol) have accelerated. In this regard, the European Union is playing a pioneering role. Since the publication of the 5EAP, the been tightened.
The production and consumption of CFCs show a decreasing trend: an 80% reduction between 1986 and 1994 (see Figure 3.2.2). The 1994 target for halons has been reached. It is uncertain whether the production of CFCs will be stopped in 1995 as planned. The production of HCFCs (targeted for complete phase out by 2015) has increased during the period 1986-1994 as a result of the substitution for previous uses of CFCs. Despite current policy measures to phase out CFCs and other ozone depleting substances, the ozone layer will continue to be depleted until late into the 21st Century due to the long lifetime of chlorine compounds in the atmosphere.
Source: EC-DG XI
European andtransboundary scale
Acidification, combined with other forms of environmental stress, increase the chances of damage to ecosystems by devitalising forests and undermining the quality of water resources. This process will continue due to deposition of sulphur and nitrogen compounds. Sulphur emissions have been reduced considerably. Meanwhile, NOx and ammonia (NH3) emissions have stabilised.
The European Union has undertaken considerable action to reduce emissions from various sources (eg, large combustion plants, vehicles, etc). The effectiveness of these actions can be observed, although full implementation is still underway. It is expected that SO2 emissions will continue to decrease and that the 5EAP will be achieved. This is also true for the more stringent target agreed in the revised UNECE Sulphur Protocol. Due to the introduction of the catalytic converter for vehicles, NOx emissions will start to decline. However, it is uncertain if the 2000 target will be met. Current reduction plans of EU Member States will lead to a 20% reduction by 2000 (compared to 1985 levels) instead of the 30% target mentioned in the 5EAP. The positive effects of end-of-pipe techniques will be partially offset by traffic growth (passenger and freight).
Even though overall acid deposition levels have decreased (and this will continue in the future, mainly due to sulphur reduction), critical loads will still be exceeded in the more sensitive regions. In 1993, deposition exceeded the 'critical acid loads' for ecosystems in 34% of the total European area (for the EU this proportion is even higher). Based on the current reduction plans of Member States, this will decrease to 25% in 2000 (see Map 3.2.1).
Source: RIVM/CCE, 1995
The two main air quality problems - which occur throughout the EU - are summertime and wintertime smog. Considerable improvements in recent decades have been achieved. However, the current concentrations of pollutants still significantly exceed health standards. Due to the concentration of population and economic activity, major urban areas experience the highest levels of pollution and exposure to health risks. For example, it is estimated that in nearly three quarters of major EU cities, WHO Air Quality Guidelines for SO2 and particulate matter (PM) were exceeded at least once in a typical year, giving rise to winter smog episodes (see Table 3.2.1) . PM pollution, as emitted by vehicles, has been identified as one of the key environment-health issues.
Table 3.2.1: Exceedances of WHO-Air Quality Guidelines on
city background locations in EU15 cities in 1990
|Cities with observed exceedances (%)||Effects|
|Short term effects|
|Summer Smog||O3||150 - 200 (hour)||84||Lung function decrements, respiratory symptons|
|Winter Smog||SO2+PM||125+125(day)||74||Decreased lung function; increased medicine use for susceptible children|
|Urban traffic||NO2||150 (day)
|Long term effects|
|Traffic/ Industry||Lead||0.5 - 1.0 (year)||33||Effects on blood formation, kidney damage; neurologic, cognitive effects|
|Combustion||SO2||50 (year)||13||Respiratory symptoms, chronic respiratory illness|
|PM||50 (year)||0||Respiratory symptoms, chronic respiratory illness|
Source: ETC/AQ; Sluyter, 1995
Although overall emissions of air pollutants are declining, the increase in emissions from road transport - which is a key sector for air quality - will partially offset improvements. Despite the implementation of policy measures, it is unlikely that the EU will meet the VOC for 2000.
Due to a lack of information, it is difficult to assess progress towards two other air pollution problems, dioxins and heavy metals. Meeting the dioxin target is heavily dependent on progress in the implementation of adequate abatement measures at a time when waste incineration capacity (a key source of dioxins) is growing significantly. There is considerable progress in the reduction of heavy metals by the so-called North Sea countries. The reduction target for 1995 will be achieved by most countries, although copper, zinc and chromium still require attention.
Waste management is important for several reasons. Sustainable use of raw materials involves increased recycling of secondary materials. Effective management, especially of hazardous wastes, prevents soil pollution and reduces risks to human health. Energy recovery from waste contributes to primary energy conservation. Waste prevention proved to be difficult to tackle. Municipal waste generation per capita - one of the key 5EAP target indicators - has shown a steady increase of about 20% between 1985-1993. However, considerable success has been achieved in recycling of paper and glass - current recycling rates are almost 50%. The majority of municipal waste is disposed by landfill, although this is declining and is being replaced by incineration (current disposal rates are 57% and 23% respectively). Lack of data prevents a full assessment of the hazardous waste situation, although this waste category has higher risks for the environment.
Due to further economic growth and a lack of effective prevention measures, municipal waste per capita will continue to grow (see Figure 3.2.3). It will increase by 30% by 2000 compared with the 1985 level (the 5EAP target is to maintain the 1985 level in 2000). Despite the Packaging Directive, further improvements in recycling will be constrained by recycling costs and the lack of markets for secondary materials. It is expected that disposal by landfill will continue to decrease and incineration will increase. This may have positive impacts on soil and water pollution, but to prevent knock-on effects in terms of air emissions, adequate legislation for emission control is a prerequisite.
Urban environment problems do not have a Transboundary character, but are ubiquitous throughout Europe. Many regional and global environmental problems originate in cities. More than two-thirds of the EU's population now live in urban areas. Environmental problems in concentration areas tend to increase. Apart from traffic congestion and air pollution - which are discussed above - the major urban environmental stress is noise. A lack of open and green space, a lack of infrastructure (eg, sewage treatment), disintegration of infrastructure and housing stock, crime and other social problems are also associated with large, poorly planned cities.
In large cities, the proportion of the population exposed to unacceptable levels of noise is two to three times higher than the national average. Transport, the main source of noise disturbance, is currently exposing some 17% of the population in most EU countries to noise levels higher than 65 dB(A). Due to accelerated traffic growth, it is expected that this will increase, while policies aim to stabilise present levels. Only with concerted local action, can the target be reached.
The main threats to ground and surface water resources are deterioration of the water quality and over-exploitation of water reserves. On average, 17% of renewable water resources in the EU are abstracted each year. Water abstraction rates increased by 35% between 1970 and 1985 and are predicted to continue to increase, in particular within the agricultural sector in southern regions of Europe.
The majority of Europeans (65%) rely on groundwater for drinking water purposes. This leads in many places to over exploitation of aquifers, which results in the lowering of the watertable and associated effects such as: salt water intrusion in coastal aquifers, decreasing river flow and drying out of wetlands. The use of groundwater for drinking water is threatened by the leaching of pesticides (see Map 3.2.2) and nitrates from agriculture. Nitrate and pesticide concentrations in groundwater are increasing and are estimated to exceed the target in more than 85% (of all Europe) and 75% (of EU) of agricultural land respectively.
Due to significant investments in sewage treatment, most large European rivers have shown signs of improved conditions over the last decade. Emissions of oxygen-depleting substances and phosphorus have decreased markedly (see Figure 3.2.4), leading to improved oxygen levels and better conditions for aquatic animals; the improvement has been greatest in north-western regions of the EU. Despite a reduction in phosphorus emissions to surface waters, eutrophication remains an issue of concern. As for groundwater, the great majority of EU rivers (75%) show continuing increases in nitrate concentrations due to intensification of agriculture. This raises the potential for eutrophication in receiving seas.
Source: ETC/IW, 1995
Many current policy initiatives will require a significant investment by Member States, but are expected to result in a significant payback in terms of environmental quality by the year 2000. Up to that time, it is likely that the quality of surface waters will either remain at the present level or show a gradual improvement. With regard to groundwaters, the impact of the Nitrates Directive and the expected reduction in the use of pesticides may take longer to become visible.
The degradation of coastal zones is caused by the accumulation of pollutants from river catchment areas, direct pollution to seas, oil spills, atmospheric deposition and coastal erosion and stress due to tourism and fishing. The main pollutants affecting coastal zones include: nutrients, heavy metals, chemicals, oil and hazardous waste (Baltic and Mediterranean). Coastal zones also face eutrophication caused by discharges of nutrients via rivers (Baltic and North Sea). Most North Sea States have reduced phosphorus and heavy metals by about 50% between 1985 and 1995.
Environmental risks predominantly arise from industrial and nuclear accidents, chemicals and natural hazards. Environmental damages from accidents and natural disasters have risen consistently over the last thirty years. The overall aims of policy in all fields of risk is to reduce exposure to risk based on the precautionary principle. This has been addressed through, for example: the reduction of the amount of toxic substances in the environment, the prevention of major industrial accidents ('Seveso' Directive), risk management of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the implementation of safety standards to reduce the risk of nuclear accidents. Concerns also arise from the number of existing chemicals already in use (approximately 100,000 chemicals are marketed in the EU), about which little is so far known about their environmental impact and synergistic effects.
The main soil quality problems in Europe are erosion and pollution. Soil as a natural resource has degraded and is causing concern in many parts of the EU. Degradation might continue in the future, in spite of Member States' programmes. Environmental policy and measures concerning soil are limited, as is the available information on which to develop policy. Apart from measures, EU policies are absent due to subsidiarity considerations.
Soil erosion - especially in the Mediterranean zone - is caused by deforestation and inadequate agricultural practices. Soil pollution can have different origins: airborne acidification, excessive utilisation of fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture, storage and disposal of materials in industrial sites, disposal of domestic and industrial wastes and mining operations.
Impacts on nature and biodiversity
Conservation of nature and biodiversity is traditionally pursued by protecting areas and species. The Habitat Directive, through the creation of a coherent European network of natural and semi-natural sites (the NATURA 2000 network), provides a potential mechanism for increasing the total area of protected sites in the Union, as well as for improving management and monitoring systems for these designated areas. The current challenge for the Union and Member States is to designate sites reflecting the variety of Europe's natural habitats, and to show a willingness to contribute significantly to facilitating the process.
Biodiversity in Europe is under stress from human impacts from all sectors. The change of biodiversity leads to: a depletion of natural genetic sources, disappearance of species, an increasing vulnerability of ecosystems. A decrease in biodiversity also imposes the possibility of long-term risks to food security. Natural habitats such as hedgerows, open, natural and semi-natural grasslands and wetlands are specifically under pressure and change continually. Many plant and animal species are currently declining and threatened with extinction (see Figure 3.2.5). Although Europe's area under forest is increasing, this does not mean that forest as an ecosystem is not to be considered as vulnerable. Patches of old forest are under pressure from the forestry industry. Air pollution (which influences all habitats) is also seriously damaging forests. In the southern part of Europe, forest fires are a major problem. The composition of habitats, especially forests, has changed due to the introduction of non-indigenous species. In many areas, forests are no longer natural ecosystems due to afforestation practices.
Figure 3.2.5: Average percentage of threatened plants and animals
Source: Eurostat, 1995
Land use and habitat fragmentation are the major factors directly affecting nature and biodiversity; however, pollution and other human activities also give rise to multiple stresses (eg, acidification, chemicals in the environment, disturbances in water availability and nutrient cycles and introduction of new species). In spite of the reductions in pressure that have been achieved, exceedances are still above critical levels of ecosystems.
3.3 Environmental expenditures
Total environmental expenditure in the EU12 was about 63 billion ECU in 1992. Expenditure on environmental protection has been increasing steadily since 1985 at a rate of about 4% per annum, although since 1990 growth has been slower at 1% per annum (see Figure 3.3.1). Expenditure on wastewater treatment measures accounts for the largest share of total environmental expenditure (about 50%). Waste management is the next most significant area of environmental spending (33%). Environmental expenditure is expected to increase by about 50% between 1992 and 2000 as a result of stricter environmental policies, but also due to general economic growth.
Source: ERECO, 1993
The overall impact of environmental policies on economic development can be considered as minimal. OECD concluded that the current costs of pollution control are only a small part of total costs in most sectors and that nearly all Member States have introduced similar environmental measures at roughly the same time. Environmental measures are not a source of significant cost differentials among major competitors and have marginal effects on overall trade between countries.
The potential effect of environmental regulation on the environment industry (the provision of goods and services for environmental protection activities) and on job creation is significant and shows an upward trend. The implementation of clean (process-integrated) technologies and energy and resource conservation measures (due to climate change and waste recycling programmes respectively), can also lead to financial savings.
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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