Consumption of goods and services in the EEA member countries is a major driver of global resource use – and associated environmental impacts – as the levels of European demand exceed the continent’s ability to meet them from within its borders.
Europeans spend most on food and drink, housing and mobility, three areas that also cause the greatest environmental pressures per Euro spent. Tourism is a fourth area with high and growing environmental pressures from European consumption, both within the EU and elsewhere. Overall consumption trends in the areas of housing, mobility, and tourism generally seem to be environmentally unfavourable. Further analysis is required regarding food consumption trends.
The growth in global trade is resulting in an increasing share of the environmental pressures and impacts caused by consumption in EU countries being felt beyond their borders. While some of this shift is between EU countries, a large part is outside the EU and beyond the remit of current EU production-related policies.
There is major potential for reducing environmental pressures caused by European consumption. Examples include shifting from car use to collective transport and bicycles, choosing high-quality and eco-labelled products and energy-efficient housing solutions. Another option is to channel additional income towards consumption areas with low environmental pressures per Euro spent, e.g. communications, education and sustainable leisure activities.
Instigating such changes and making more resource-efficient and environmentally sustainable consumption patterns mainstream is a significant challenge. It requires public authorities to put the framework conditions in place to enable business and consumers/citizens to act sustainably, and business and citizens need to take action by adopting more sustainable production and consumption patterns.
Achieving significant reductions in the environmental pressures related to consumption will require sophisticated policy packages, including regulatory and voluntary instruments, providing sustainable infrastructure, technological support; consumer education and information; and green public procurement. Getting the prices right through ecological tax reform could provide the critical fiscal element of such policy packages. Information to consumers is unlikely on its own to result in significant changes to consumption patterns.
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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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