Environmental challenges are intrinsically linked with the way we live: we depend on our natural environment to supply the natural resources and ecosystem services that sustain our health and well-being, and ensure that our economies prosper. Many of the environmental problems that we face today have existed for decades; what has changed is our appreciation of their drivers and the impacts these may have on the planet as a whole.
Against a backdrop of unprecedented rates of change, interconnected and systemic risks, and increased vulnerabilities of environmental challenges, the need for a transformation to a green economy has emerged as a key environmental priority — both at the European and the global level.
The green economy is one in which environmental, economic and social policies and innovations enable society to use resources efficiently, thereby enhancing human well-being in an inclusive manner, while maintaining the natural systems that sustain us. At its core is the twin challenge of improving resource efficiency whilst ensuring a resilient structure and functioning of ecosystems that can deliver the many ecosystem services we rely on.
This report offers an indicator-based assessment that focuses on measuring progress towards meeting this twin challenge.
Part 1 of this report introduces in some detail key concepts used in the report, i.e. ecosystem resilience, resource efficiency and green economy.
Part 2 of this report presents six thematic assessments building on a selection of the over 200 environmental indicators the EEA maintains.
For each of these six themes, two types of environmental indicators are highlighted in a green economy context. First, indicators that describe the state of, or impacts on, the environment, and thus help illustrate threats to ecosystem resilience. Second, indicators that depict environmental pressures and indicate progress in improving resource efficiency. In addition, developments in key associated economic sectors are exemplified.
• Nitrogen emissions and threats to biodiversity: progress has been made to reduce acidifying and eutrophying (nitrogen) emissions; but nitrogen surpluses and related impacts on ecosystems and habitats remain high.
• Carbon emissions and climate change: domestic greenhouse gas emissions have decreased substantially across the European Union; but global temperature increases continue to threaten ecosystem resilience.
• Air pollution and air quality: air pollutant emissions have decreased in many parts of Europe; yet exposure to air quality that adversely affects human health remains a challenge especially in urban environments.
• Maritime use and the marine environment: maritime activities are varied and create multiple pressures on the marine environment; in combination they result in altered, often less resilient marine ecosystems.
• Water use and water stress: managing water use and demand has helped reduce water use in all sectors; but still high levels of water stress put at risk achieving good ecological status of European water bodies.
• Use of material resource and waste management: there has been progress in decoupling economic growth from material resource use and better waste management; however, on a whole consumption and production patterns exceed sustainable levels.
Part 3 of this report concludes by reflecting that, by and large, European environmental policies appear to have had a clearer impact on improving resource efficiency than on maintaining ecosystem resilience.
This underlines that while improving resource efficiency remains necessary, it may not be sufficient to ensure a sustainable natural environment. In some cases, negative effects of reduced ecosystem resilience may even be irreversible, for example where biodiversity loss leads to species extinction, or when environmental or climate tipping points are passed.
Thus, this report argues that in striving towards a green economy there would be value in considering objectives and targets that explicitly recognise the relationships between resource efficiency, ecosystem resilience and human well-being as well as the different time lags for green economy policy actions to succeed. The report also offers some reflections on indicators to support measuring progress towards such objectives and targets.