EEA: 25 years of growing knowledge to support European environment policies

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Article Published 17 Dec 2018 Last modified 11 May 2021
5 min read
Photo: © Piotr Górny, WaterPIX/EEA
The European Union (EU) has one of the most ambitious sets of environment and climate targets in the world, covering a wide range of policy areas from air quality, waste and water quality to energy and transport. Based on data reported by Member States, the European Environment Agency helps to monitor progress and identify the areas where additional efforts are needed. Since its establishment 25 years ago, the EEA has been developing its data and knowledge work to support policy making in Europe.

Recognising the transboundary nature of many of the environmental problems they were facing, EU Member States already back in the 1970s agreed to act together on a common set of policies and related policy objectives. Starting with the first Environmental Action Programme, several pieces of key environmental legislation were adopted in the 1970s, including the first versions of the Waste Framework Directive, the Bathing Water Directive and the Birds Directive.

Global and pan-European efforts marked the 1980s, including the Montreal Protocol for the ozone layer, the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution. In parallel with such global initiatives, EU environment policies were also strengthened with the establishment of the European Commission’s Directorate General for the Environment in 1981 and the formal integration of ‘environmental protection’ into EU treaties with the Single European Act of 1987. With the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997, ‘sustainable development’ was recognised as a formal goal of the European Union, enabling the EU Member States to act together and support the implementation of global goals, such as the Millennium Development Goals from 2000 and the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals from 2015.

Similar developments took place in the area of climate change, including the adoption of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty in 1992, followed by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The Kyoto Protocol legally bound the developed countries signatory to the protocol to emission reduction targets until 2020. The global ambition and commitment levels were raised further with the Paris Agreement in 2015. Along side its Member States, the European Union is a party to these agreements and sets targets for the EU as a whole.

Measuring progress towards targets

As the scope of environment and climate-related legislation expanded both at EU and global levels, high-quality data became a pre-requisite for being able to monitor progress and identify gaps and emerging issues. It is against this backdrop that European Commission President Jacques Delors proposed in 1989 to introduce a European system of environmental measurement and verification together with the idea to create a European Environment Agency. The European Environment Agency and the European Environment Information and Observation Network (Eionet) were subsequently established in 1994[1] to produce independent assessments on Europe’s environment and support environmental policy-making across the EU.

Many of the EU’s environmental directives require Member States to monitor specific parameters and report the data and progress on actions at set frequencies. What started as parcels of paper reports mailed by national authorities has developed into an online reporting platform receiving and hosting an ever-increasing amount of data in the last 25 years. Today, more than 400 institutions across 39+ countries report data to the EEA’s reporting tool — Reportnet. Once submitted, the data goes through EEA quality check and quality assurance processes to ensure coherence and comparability. In addition to the data from more than 400 reporting obligations, data from new sources, including satellite observations through the European Earth Observation Programme Copernicus and citizen science, have been expanding our ability to monitor changes to the environment and climate.

The EEA’s online dissemination tools give free access to this wealth of data — ranging from the European Air Quality Index (live map of air pollution concentrations across Europe), water information system WISE and greenhouse gas emissions by sector and by country to an extensive database providing detailed overviews of climate change policies and measures planned by Member States.

Building on these data, the EEA regularly produces indicators and assessments to monitor progress towards various EU targets. For example, we have recently published our annual Trends and Projections report, where we monitor the EU’s progress towards its 2020 targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions, renewable energy and energy efficiency. Our assessment shows that the EU is on track to meet its 2020 targets but more effort is needed to achieve the 2030 targets. Similarly, our recent briefing asserted that the EU has met the Aichi target of designating 10% of its seas as marine protected areas, but designation needs to be complemented by effective conservation measures. Despite this progress, our latest annual indicator report, measuring the EU’s progress towards priority objectives under the 7th Environment Action Programme, highlights that the European Union continues to fall short of achieving environmental objectives by 2020, especially in areas aimed at protecting biodiversity and natural capital.

Monitoring progress requires sound data and transparency

Sound data is essential for producing reliable assessments. For most data streams, the quality of the data at the EU level depends closely on the quality of the data reported by the countries. For example, the EU greenhouse gas emissions inventory is an aggregation of EU Member States’ inventories. To this end, the EEA does not only work on assuring the quality of the data reported, but also helps build coherent monitoring and reporting capacity in Member States. For some work areas, Eionet facilitates exchange of best practices not only in the EU but also in a wider region including the European Neighbourhood to the east and the Mediterranean.

In fact, accessibility and transparency are key components of environment and climate policies in the EU. A robust monitoring, reporting and verification system is essential to ensure that commitments are pursued and identify where additional effort is needed to reach them. The need for a transparent framework is even more evident in global efforts, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Paris Agreement formally recognises the importance of regular reporting of countries’ emissions and efforts.

From data, the EEA builds policy-relevant knowledge

Since its establishment 25 years ago, the EEA’s highly dedicated staff and Eionet partners, including European Topic Centres, have been analysing the data reported by Member States and turning it into policy-relevant knowledge. Similar to developments in EU policy-making, where single policy areas have increasingly been embedded within system-wide policy frameworks, the EEA has been strengthening its systemic and integrated analysis work. Since the publication of the EEA’s first State and Outlook of Europe’s Environment Report (SOER) back in 1995, EEA knowledge has increasingly focusedon understanding key systems, such as mobility and energy, as well as global interlinkages and governance challenges.

It is evident that the environmental and climate challenges of the 21st century can no longer be analysed or addressed without taking into account socio-economic trends in Europe and across the world. In these times of complex and global interactions, producing timely and relevant analysis at different geographic and time scales as well as accurate projections remains as challenging as ever. In this light, the EEA together with Eionet will continue to invest in reporting and knowledge systems and support decision making in Europe and globally.

Hans Bruyninckx

Hans Bruyninckx
EEA Executive Director

The editorial published in the December 2018 issue of the EEA Newsletter 04/2018

[1] The founding regulation was adopted in 1990 and amended in 2009.


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