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You are here: Home / Signals — well-being and the environment / Signals 2011 / Articles / Complex challenges in an interconnected world

Complex challenges in an interconnected world

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One of the main conclusions in EEA's flagship report, SOER 2010, appears obvious: 'environmental challenges are complex and can't be understood in isolation'.

 Image © EEA/John McConnico

Simply put, this means that environmental issues are joined together and are often only one part of the larger jigsaw puzzle of challenges facing us and our planet. The truth is, we live in and depend on a highly interconnected world made up of many distinct but related systems — environmental, social, economic, technical, political, cultural and so on.

This global interconnectivity means that damaging one element may cause unexpected impacts elsewhere. The recent global financial crash and the aviation chaos caused by an Icelandic volcano demonstrate how sudden breakdowns in one area can affect whole systems.

This interconnectivity is often referred to as 'globalisation' and it's not a new phenomenon. In Europe, globalisation has allowed us to prosper as a continent and take a leading economic role for a long time. Along the way we have used a great deal of our own natural resources as well as those of other nations. Our 'footprint' or impact is broad and goes well beyond our borders.

Indeed, driving forces at the heart of globalisation are expected to be a major influence on Europe and our environment in the future. Many of them are beyond our control. For example, the world population could exceed nine billion by 2050, with major environmental consequences. Asia and Africa will most likely account for most of the population growth, while only around 3 % of the growth will occur in the most developed countries (Europe, Japan, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand).

Environmental challenges connected with global drivers of change

A range of unfolding trends are shaping the world. We call some of these trends 'global megatrends' as they cut across social, technological, economic, political and even environmental dimensions. Key developments include changing demographic patterns or accelerating rates of urbanisation, ever faster technological changes, deepening market integration, evolving economic power shifts or the changing climate.

Such trends have huge implications for global demand for resources. Cities are spreading. Consumption is increasing. The world expects continued economic growth. Production is shifting towards newly emerging economies, which will grow in economic significance. Non-state actors could become more relevant in global political processes. And accelerating technological change is anticipated. This 'race into the unknown' brings new risks – but also offers great opportunities.

The future impacts on Europe's environment of these 'global megatrends' is the subject of one section of SOER and underpins Signals 2011. These key trends have huge implications for our global environment and our stewardship of the resources contained therein. Throughout Signals 2011 there are sections entitled 'Earth 2050 global megatrend' where we look forward at a key trend and assess its impact on Europe's environment in the future.

We can’t say exactly what the earth will look or feel like in 2050. Many trends are already well established. How they continue comes down to the choices we make now. In that sense, the future is in our hands. Let’s choose wisely. Our grandchildren and everybody else in the family portrait 2050 will thank us for it.


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European Environment Agency (EEA)
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Phone: +45 3336 7100