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Between 1990 and 2010 in the EU-27, consumption expenditure increased by 33%. The West Balkan countries and Turkey saw a steeper rise - by 120% and 63% respectively for the same period. Households spend between two and six times more than the public sector. The negative environmental effects of goods consumed in Europe are global - resource extraction, production, processing and transportation impact other regions.
Our eating and drinking habits result in significant environmental pressures: we cause these directly, by travelling to the shops, storing, cooking and generating waste; and indirectly - and even more importantly - by food production, processing and transportation.
We buy increasing numbers of electric and electronic goods (such as TVs, PCs, laptops, mobile phones and kitchen appliances), and we also replace these more frequently than previously. Household electricity consumption is on the rise. Our houses are getting more energy-efficient, but as we also build larger homes for fewer people, energy consumption for heating is only slightly decreasing. Every European citizen threw away roughly 445 kg of household waste in 2008.
Car travel and aviation are on the rise, inflating energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions; increased car traffic is a major contributor to air pollution and also causes noise problems in cities. Today's trend towards living in low-density urban areas is resulting in urban sprawl, in turn elevating consumption of energy, resources, transport and land.
Tourism is growing fast, and travel to and from our destinations is most often by car or plane. In tourist destinations, water and energy consumption, land use, and waste/wastewater generation often have considerable environmental impacts.
European policy has only recently begun to address the challenge of unsustainable consumption patterns. European initiatives such as the Integrated Product Policy and the Ecodesign Directive (2009/125/EC) aimed to reduce the environmental impacts of products, including their energy consumption, throughout their entire life-cycle. In addition, EU policies also stimulate innovation-friendly markets with the EU Lead Market Initiative. Due to be reviewed in 2012, the European Commission’s 2008 Sustainable Consumption and Production and Sustainable Industrial Policy Action Plan reinforces life-cycle approaches, strengthens green public procurement and initiates some actions to address consumer behaviour. However, current policies, often based on voluntary instruments, do not yet sufficiently address the underlying causes of unsustainable consumption; they tend to focus instead on reducing impacts.
The European Commission adopted a Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe in September 2011. It includes proposals to strengthen green public procurement and address the environmental footprint of products. It aims to establish a common methodology for assessing, displaying and benchmarking the environmental performance of products, services and companies, and to ensure better understanding of consumer behaviour. It also recommends measures to reduce environmental impacts in the consumption areas of food, housing and mobility.
Sustainable consumption is key in the plan of action for sustainable development, Agenda 21, adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. At the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), the aim is to agree on a global framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production. Many initiatives and actions are also taken at national, regional and local levels, for example within regional sustainable development strategies and as part of the Agenda 21 processes.
Sustainable consumption is a common challenge where all players, including public authorities, business and consumers, need to take responsibility.
EEA work on consumption includes:
- Indicators: An indicator framework for sustainable consumption and production has been developed; a set of indicators are being gradually uploaded to the EEA website in 2012.
- Analysis and assessments: Analysis of consumption and its environmental impacts in Europe and beyond, using input–output analysis tools; assessment of the environmental impacts of consumption (e.g. the State of the Environment Report (SOER) 2010 thematic assessment on consumption and the environment, and the chapter on natural resources and waste in the SOER 2010 synthesis).
- Policy analysis: Organisation of conferences and workshops (e.g. the March 2011 joint EEA and World Business Council workshop on sustainable development that developed a vision for sustainable lifestyles).
- Collection of information and analysis of national policies of the EEA member countries (e.g. the country fact sheets on sustainable consumption and production (SCP) policies, 31 country profiles on resource efficiency policies and an analytical report on resource efficiency policies).
The EEA’s work in this area is supported by the European Topic Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (ETC/SCP).
In 2012, the EEA will support the European Commission and European Parliament as well as EEA member and cooperating countries with the online publication of a set of indicators to measure progress towards sustainable consumption and production, and an update of the 2010 assessment on consumption and the environment. Further, the EEA supports the Rio+20 Earth summit on sustainable development with various activities on sustainable living, sustainable business models and others.