EEA turns 25: Building on experience to achieve sustainability in Europe

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Article Published 17 Jun 2019 Last modified 23 Jul 2019
5 min read
What will Europe’s environment look like in 25 years? Will we achieve our common vision of ‘living well, within the limits of our planet’? Will we be able to limit global warming and build climate-resilient cities surrounded by healthy nature? Europeans are increasingly concerned as recent European Parliament elections showed. Europe’s next generation is also calling for urgent action, but how will their demands for a sustainable future shape Europe’s environment and socio-economic policies? On our 25th anniversary, we are reflecting on how Europe’s environmental knowledge and policy have developed in the last 25 years and how we, the EEA together with its networks, can support efforts towards sustainability in the next 25 years.

 Image © Rosana Grecchi, Sustainably Yours /EEA

Policy: from single issues towards systemic measures

Environmental awareness and its reflection on policy making started with identification of single issues, such as acid rain, chemical contamination of water bodies or rapid decline in bee populations and their implications on human health and the economy. From the 1970s onwards, European Union Member States started coordinating their efforts, increasingly aligning their policies, as a result of the growing recognition that transboundary environmental problems, such as air or water pollution, require acting together. 

In this period spanning over almost 50 years, EU countries gradually widened the scope of their collective action and increased their ambition level. As the understanding of environmental problems grew, it became evident that environmental concerns needed to be integrated into overarching policy frameworks — both in Europe and globally. In the European Union, climate and energy policies are now more closely aligned, and mobility policies have become part of a larger long-term vision for climate-neutral economy by 2050. 

In any policy discussion, it became increasingly clear that reliable information on the environment was key to designing and implementing effective policies.

Knowledge: deeper and wider understanding

The European Environment Agency was established in 1994 [1] to provide independent and reliable information on Europe’s environment to support policy making in Europe. The decision was taken as joint action requires a common understanding of the problem in question. And without comprehensive and comparable data, it is impossible to formulate joint policies and monitor progress. 

In parallel with evolving policy needs, new areas were added to our work remit over time. The temporal and spatial coverage of our knowledge base also grew. Today, EEA knowledge covers thematic analysis of single issues, ranging from air qualitybathing water quality, changes in Iand cover and waste prevention to greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide emissions from new cars and vans, to more cross-cutting and systemic analyses on climate and energy, the food system, and social vulnerabilities due to unequal exposure to multiple environmental impacts. And every five years, we complement these assessments with our state and outlook of Europe’s environment report (SOER), the 2020 edition of which will be published this December. Our assessment and knowledge work will continue to develop together with ongoing and emerging policy needs.

Data and technology: embracing change and exploring opportunities

In the early days, environmental data reporting consisted of printed material mailed, or, later on, faxed to the Agency. Today, Member States can submit massive amounts of data directly to Reportnet — our electronic reporting platform. Once quality checked, these data are made available to any user, human or machine. 

An increasing share of the collected data comes with geospatial information, allowing us to view change over time and across the continent. We can now zoom in on a map, view the protected areas in the EU’s Natura2000 network and get information on protected species’ living there. Some of the data are reported and made available in real time. Thousands of monitoring stations across Europe, measuring concentrations of key pollutants in the air, are now connected to the same network and all this information is accessible through the European Air Quality Index — our joint platform with the European Commission. 

Digitalisation and the Internet have turned what was unimaginable 25 years ago into ordinary tools today. This environmental data revolution is far from over. In fact, the European Union’s Copernicus earth observation programme offers countless opportunities to help us monitor changes in Europe’s environment and at accuracy and level of detail, which was unthinkable 25 years ago. From forest density to urban sprawl, Copernicus satellite data complements observations on the ground to provide us a full understanding of what is happening where and why. 

Considering the amount of change in technology and data collection in the last 25 years, we can be certain that technology — be it in the form of artificial intelligence, remote sensing or ever-increasing processing power — will continue to shape our knowledge and how it is accessed. 

Network of people: experience, expertise and commitment

The EEA is not only a knowledge hub connecting the science and policy worlds. It is also a networking organisation, bringing together hundreds of actors — environment agencies and ministries, public administrations and research organisations —in European Environmental Information and Observation Network (Eionet). What started as a network of 12 EU countries and dozens of staff includes today 33 member and 6 cooperating countries across Europe and hundreds of highly dedicated staff with a wide range of expertise areas. Eionet has been instrumental in establishing and ensuring regular data flows from across Europe. Today, in addition to its key role on data, Eionet also functions as a knowledge network, collecting and sharing experience and expertise from its member organisations. The collective EEA-Eionet expertise and experience also contribute to partners and projects beyond the EU, including the European Neighbourhood countries and Human Biomonitoring for Europe (HBM4EU).

In these last 25 years Environment, policy, knowledge, data, technology and EEA/Eionet have all changed and will continue to evolve. In the middle of this continuous growth, innovation and change, one thing remains unchanged: the unfaltering commitment of the people in the Agency and its networks to improving the environment and hence the quality of life in Europe and beyond. 

As we mark this year the 25thanniversary of the EEA, it is with these partners that we will be reflecting on our past and future contributions and how we, together, can best accommodate change and help achieve Europe’s long-term sustainability.

Our legacy does not need to be one of environmental degradation we failed to stop, but one of a turning point where we reversed the degradation by taking decisive action. When thousands of students hit the streets calling for action and the majority of Europeans express their concern about the environment and climate change, it is time to take bolder measures.

Hans Bruyninckx

Hans Bruyninckx
EEA Executive Director

The editorial published in the June 2019 issue of the EEA Newsletter 02/2019

Notes

[1] The Regulation founding the European Environment Agency was adopted in 1990. The EEA became operational in 1994.

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