Table 1 gives an overall summary assessment of progress over (roughly) the past five years for each of the 12 key European environmental problems identified in the Dobris assessment and evaluated in this report.
It distinguishes progress in policy development from progress in improving the quality of the environment – which sometimes lags behind policy development. Inevitably, the information base for this assessment is more reliable for some areas than for others. It is particularly weak for chemicals, biodiversity and the urban environment. Thus, for example, the "neutral sign" for progress in policies addressing tropospheric ozone is based on a more solid foundation and understanding than the similar score for chemicals, where changing perceptions about the underlying problems and severe data shortages have hampered attempts at evaluation.
|Key Environmental Problem||PROGRESS
state of environment
|stratospheric ozone depletion||+||-|
|marine and coastal environment||+/-||-|
|technological and natural hazards||+||+|
|+||positive development with regard to development of policies or state of the environment.|
|+/-||some policy development, but insufficient to deal with the full problem (including insufficient geographical coverage). Little or no change in the state of the environment. Can also indicate uncertain or varying developments in the various areas.|
|-||little development of policies or unfavourable development of the state of the environment. Can also indicate continuing high pressure or poor state of the environment.|
Strong moves over a number of years towards co-ordinating policies and action throughout Europe and beyond to reduce harmful emissions and improve the quality of the atmosphere have led to substantial reductions in most European countries in the emissions of several substances that threaten the environment and human health. These include sulphur dioxide, lead and ozone-depleting substances. There have been smaller reductions in emissions of nitrogen oxides and Non-Methane Volatile Organic Compounds (NMVOCs).
In Western Europe, these changes have been due mainly to the implementation of emission reduction policies and to structural changes in industrial production and shifts to cleaner fuels. In Central and Eastern Europe, the effects of abatement measures have been dwarfed by the steep reductions in energy use and industrial production following structural economic change, leading to considerable reductions in inputs and emissions.
Progress towards reduction targets for emissions to the air is shown in Table 2. It is only for pollutants mentioned in this table that Conventions and Protocols have set quantitative targets at pan-European level.
Table 2: Progress towards targets
Note: NIS data for 4 countries only (Belarus, Moldova, the Russian Federation and the Ukraine). CLRTAP= UN-ECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution. Although this evaluation is done for the whole area, targets are only valid for countries that are party in the conventions.
Despite the progress apparent from Table 2, emissions of several pollutants need to be further reduced so that targets already agreed – and new ones in prospect – can be met. Most of the emission reductions achieved so far have resulted from economic change and measures directed at large sources in the industry and energy sectors. With the exception of lead from petrol, there has been less success in reducing emissions from diffuse sources such as transport and agriculture; these, by their nature, are more difficult to bring under control, demanding better integration between environmental and other policies.
While some reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases have been achieved (carbon dioxide emissions in the whole of Europe fell by 12% and in Western Europe by 3% between 1990 and 1995), many of these reductions have resulted from economic changes such as the closure of much heavy industry in Eastern Europe and the switch from coal to gas for electricity generation in some Western European countries.
The energy supply sector is the largest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions (about 35% in 1995), with approximately equal emissions from industry, transport and the household + commercial sectors (around 20% each), and an increasing contribution from the transport sector. For the EU, the Commission of the European Communities’ latest "business as usual" scenario suggests an 8% increase of carbon dioxide emissions between 1990 and 2010, in striking contrast to the current target of an 8% reduction (for a "basket" of six gases, including carbon dioxide) for the European Union, as agreed at Kyoto in December 1997. There will clearly need to be action at all levels affecting all economic sectors if the Kyoto target is to be achieved.
Depletion of the ozone layer
Implementation of the Montreal Protocol and its subsequent extensions has reduced the global production and emission of ozone-depleting substances by 80-90%. Similar reductions have been achieved in Europe.
However, it will take many decades for ozone levels in the stratosphere to recover because of the persistence of ozone-depleting substances in the upper atmosphere. This underlines the importance of reducing emissions of remaining ozone-depleting substances (HCFCs, methyl bromide) and of ensuring that existing measures are properly enforced, so as to advance the date of recovery of the ozone layer.
Some progress has been made since the Dobris assessment in bringing the problem of acidification under control, mainly as a result of the continuing reduction of sulphur dioxide emissions (50% between 1980 and 1995 in the whole of Europe). Emissions of nitrogen oxides and ammonia have fallen by 15%. However, for about 10% of Europe’s land area the level of acid deposition is still too high. For NOx emissions by transport, environmental policy has not kept up with growth in transport use – the growth in numbers and use of cars is offsetting the benefits of technical improvements such as the increased use of cleaner engines and exhaust catalysts in passenger cars. This has resulted in the transport sector becoming the dominant contributor to emissions of nitrogen oxides. The large potential for growth in private transport in CEE and in the NIS is likely to exacerbate the problem.
Tropospheric ozone and summer smog
In spite of rising traffic levels throughout Europe, a significant reduction (14%) in emissions of ozone precursors was achieved in Europe as a whole between 1990 and 1995 through a combination of control measures in various sectors and economic restructuring in Eastern Europe. However, summer smog, caused by high tropospheric ozone concentrations, still occurs frequently in many European countries, posing a threat to human health and to vegetation.
Further substantial reductions in emissions of NOx and NMVOCs in the whole of the northern hemisphere will be required to achieve a significant reduction in tropospheric ozone concentrations. The second step to the 1988 NOx Protocol under the UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) will be a multi-pollutant, multi-effect protocol addressing photochemical pollution, acidification and eutrophication. This is expected to be ready for adoption in 1999 and will probably aim for more rigorous emission reductions. Emissions from the fast-growing transport sector, which is the main contributor to emissions of NOx in the whole of Europe and to NMVOC emissions in Western Europe, will be particularly difficult to control.
In Eastern Europe, industry is still the main source of NMVOC emissions, but that situation could change with the expected increase in transport.
The extent of the threat posed to the environment and human health by chemicals remains uncertain because of the vast numbers of chemicals in common use and the lack of knowledge about the ways in which they move through and accumulate in the environment and their human and ecological impacts.
Because of the difficulty of assessing the toxicity of the many potentially hazardous chemicals in use or released (and of their mixtures), some current control strategies are now aimed at reducing the "load" of chemical in the environment (and, thereby, of exposures to them) through elimination or reduction of their use and emissions. New instruments, such as voluntary reduction programmes and Toxic Release Inventories/Pollutant Emission Registers are gaining increasing attention.
Reported total waste generation is estimated to have increased by nearly 10% between 1990 and 1995. However, part of the apparent increase may be the result of improved waste monitoring.
Waste management in most countries continues to be dominated by the cheapest available option: landfill. Waste minimisation and prevention are being increasingly recognised as more desirable solutions for waste management, but no overall progress in this direction can yet be seen. Recycling tends to be more successful in countries with a strong waste management infrastructure.
Priorities in CEE and in the NIS include improving municipal waste management through better separation of wastes and better landfill management, the introduction of recycling initiatives at local level, and carrying out low-cost mitigation and containment at priority disposal sites.
The overall pressure on biodiversity from human activities (intensive agriculture, forestry, urbanisation and infrastructure development, as well as pollution) has generally increased since the Dobris assessment.
These pressures arise from uniform and increasingly large-scale management of agriculture and forestry, fragmentation of the landscape (leading to isolation of natural habitats and species), loading by chemicals, water extraction, disturbance, and influx of alien species. Many national and international nature protection initiatives have been launched, but their implementation has been slow. Locally, some targeted nature protection measures have had beneficial effects, but there has been little progress towards sustainable agriculture.
Parts of CEE and the NIS have the benefit of large tracts of relatively unspoiled forests and other natural habitats. However, these could be threatened by the pressures resulting from economic change and development unless adequate measures for their protection are built into the Environmental Programme for Europe and into national economic development policies and related financial mechanisms as well as into accession agreements for those countries joining the EU.
Inland and marine waters
The EPE pays particular attention to sustainable management of natural resources, including inland, coastal and marine waters. However, threats to all these remain.
Although, in the past decade, water abstraction rates have been stable or have even decreased in a number of Western and Eastern European countries, potential water shortages persist, particularly around urban areas. Leakages from distribution systems in some countries, and inefficient water use in all countries continue to be problems.
Groundwater quality – and, consequently, human health – are threatened by high concentrations of nitrate from agriculture. Concentrations of pesticides in groundwater commonly exceed EU maximum admissible concentrations and many countries report groundwater pollution by heavy metals, hydrocarbons and chlorinated hydrocarbons. Improvements in groundwater quality will take many years to achieve because of the time taken for pollutants to enter and move through groundwater.
Since 1990, there has been no overall improvement in river quality in Europe. Despite a 40-60% reduction in phosphorus emissions over the past five years – resulting from measures in industry and waste water treatment and the increasing use of phosphate-free detergents in households – the problem of eutrophication of rivers, lakes, reservoirs and coastal and marine waters remains as reported in the Dobris assessment, with excessive nutrient levels in many areas.
Many European seas continue to be heavily over-fished, and stocks of a number of species are seriously depleted, underlining again the urgent call in the EPE for promoting sustainable fisheries.
Soil erosion and salinisation remain serious problems in many areas, particularly around the Mediterranean. Little progress has been achieved in soil conservation, another area given particular attention in the EPE. A large number of contaminated sites are in need of remediation. Currently, 300 000 potentially contaminated sites have been identified, mainly in Western Europe, particularly in areas with a long tradition of heavy industry.
In Eastern Europe, where there is a large number of contaminated military areas, better information is needed to ascertain the extent of the problem.
The urban population in Europe has continued to increase and European cities continue to show signs of environmental stress – poor air quality, excessive noise, traffic congestion, loss of green areas and degradation of historical buildings and monuments.
Although there have been some improvements since the Dobris assessment (for example, in urban air quality), many stresses, especially from transport, are increasingly leading to a deterioration in the quality of life and human health. One positive development has been a growing interest by cities in the local Agenda 21 movement. More than 290 European cities have signed the Aalborg Charter of European Cities and Towns towards Sustainability. Implementation of local Agenda 21 policies and instruments, with their promise of significant improvement from concerted local action, is fast becoming the most crucial development in cities.
Technological and natural hazards
In addition to the stresses constantly imposed by day-to-day human activities, Europe’s environment is affected by infrequent impacts from major technological accidents and natural hazards. Data on such accidents are at present only available in certain areas on EU level; even fewer data are available for CEE and NIS. On the basis of reported events, the number of industrial accidents per unit of activity in the EU appears to be decreasing.
Damage from floods and other disasters with a climatological background is increasing in Europe, possibly as a result of human influences such as changes in the landscape (including soil sealing under urban areas and infrastructure), as well as from the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events.
The assessment above shows that, although some pressures on the environment have been reduced, this has not generally led to an improvement in the state or quality of the environment of Europe. This is due, in some cases, to natural time delays (in processes such as stratospheric ozone depletion or the build-up of phosphorus concentrations in lakes). However, in many cases the measures taken have been too limited, given the scale and complexity of the problem (for example, summer smog or pesticides in groundwater).
A traditional focus for European environmental policies has been on the control of pollution at source and the protection of particular parts of the environment. More recently, the integration of environmental considerations into other policy areas and the promotion of sustainable development have come to the fore.
Transport, energy, industry and agriculture are key sectoral "driving forces" that impact on Europe’s environment. The development of environmental policies and their effective implementation varies widely between these sectors. The industry and energy sectors are reasonably well covered by policies, but some areas still need attention (e.g. energy efficiency, renewable energy); agriculture is covered to a lesser extent and is under review; the situation for the transport sector remains unsatisfactory.
climate change, acidification, summer smog, biodiversity, urban problems, chemicals, accidents
Transport: Goods transport by road in the whole of Europe has increased by 54% since 1980 (measured in tonne-km), passenger transport by car has increased by 46% since 1985 (passenger-km, EU only) and the number of passengers transported by air has grown by 67% since 1985.
In the transport sector more than any other, environmental policies are failing to keep up with the pace of growth. Problems of congestion, air pollution and noise are increasing. Until recently, the growth of transport has been widely regarded as a fundamental part of economic growth and development: governments have set themselves the task of developing the necessary infrastructure, while the environmental task has been restricted to ensuring that vehicle emission standards and fuel quality are gradually improved, and that the choice of traffic routes is made subject to environmental impact assessment.
This report shows that some progress has been made on these limited objectives in most of Europe. Nevertheless, the continuing growth of traffic and transport infrastructure has resulted in an overall growth in transport-related environmental problems and public concern about them. This is now leading to more fundamental questioning of the link between economic development and the growth of traffic.
Recently efforts are being made to restrain growth in the demand for transport, promote more use of public transport, and encourage new patterns of settlement and production which reduce the need for transport. This transformation to a more sustainable pattern of transport will not be easy to achieve because there is considerable political momentum behind the traditional approach to infrastructure development, and public transport is losing out to private transport everywhere in Europe.
climate change, acidification, summer smog, coastal and marine, urban problems
Energy use, which is the basic driving force behind climate change and a number of air pollution problems, has remained at a consistently high level in Western Europe since the Dobris assessment. In CEE and the NIS, energy consumption has fallen by 23% since 1990 as a result of economic restructuring, but is expected to rise again as economic recovery takes off. Greater efficiency in the production and use of energy is a key requirement of a more sustainable energy policy. Relatively low energy prices have not provided a sufficient stimulus for energy efficiency improvements in Western Europe. Currently energy efficiency is improving by about 1% per year, but GDP is continuing to grow by about 2 to 3% per year.
Considerable scope exists for further improvement in energy efficiency in Western Europe, particularly in the transport and household sectors, but experience suggests that, while fossil fuel prices remain low, more vigorous policy measures will be needed to achieve such improvement. In Eastern Europe, economic convergence with the West could reverse the current trend towards lower energy consumption and lead to a resumption of growth in emissions of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants, particularly in the industrial, transport and household sectors. So here, too, new measures to promote energy efficiency in the production and consumption of energy are likely to be needed.
climate change, stratospheric ozone, acidification, summer smog, chemicals, waste, water, coastal and marine, urban problems, accidents
Industry: The relative contribution of industry to the problems of climate change, acidification, tropospheric ozone and water pollution has decreased since the Dobris assessment.
In Western Europe, environmental objectives are becoming integrated into industrial decision-making, resulting in falling total industrial emissions to air and water. However, such integration is not common in Eastern Europe, underlining the need in these countries for well-designed and well-resourced administrative structures for the implementation and enforcement of environmental legislation, and for the wider use of environmental management systems by business. Technological "leapfrogging" may occur when a significant part of the production system is renewed.
In all of Europe, the environmental impact of small and medium-sized enterprises is considerable, as is their potential for improvement. In general, these enterprises are not yet being subjected to effective environmental measures.
climate change, stratospheric ozone, acidification, chemicals, biodiversity, waste, water, coastal and marine, soil
Agriculture: In the past, agricultural policies in Europe have generally been directed towards maximising food production and maintaining farm incomes. More recently, policies are beginning to direct more attention to environmental requirements and the need for more sustainable agriculture. The report shows, however, that there is still a long way to go.
In Western Europe, yields have continued to increase in the past five years as a result of advances in agricultural practices. Use of inputs like inorganic fertilisers and pesticides (measured in weight of active substances) has levelled off (although, as indicated above, this is not leading to any immediate improvement in groundwater quality), but water use has continued to increase.
With the increase of livestock production, animal manure production and the emission of reduced nitrogen compounds, eutrophication has become a major problem in north-west Europe and is increasing in significance in southern Europe. Natural habitats and biodiversity are, in many places, under pressure from agricultural intensification and the spread of new settlements.
Individual countries have started to stimulate more environmentally friendly farming, but environmental considerations are still only a small part of the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union (CAP). Implementation of GATT and CAP reform may lead to further rationalisation and specialisation of agricultural production, and abandonment of more marginal land. However, there is no simple relationship between abandonment and its impact on biodiversity.
In Eastern Europe, structural reform, modernisation and diversification of the agricultural sector remain a priority. However, the complexities and uncertainties of the situation make it difficult to make an overall assessment of the impact of such developments.
Overall, achieving sustainable levels of environmental pressure and use of resources is likely to require major technological advances and major shifts to less resource-intensive and environmentally harmful activities.
While at national level there has been some progress in developing policies that integrate environmental requirements into decision-making (such as environmental action plans or requirements for strategic environmental assessments), there is a long way to go in implementing these on a pan-European scale. However, the scope for improvements that are large enough to overcome the environmental impacts of growth in production and consumption is considerable, particularly in CEE and the NIS. In these countries, economic restructuring and technological renewal provide opportunities for avoiding some of the more wasteful technologies of Western Europe.
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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