Healthy environment is a must for sustainable economy and equitable society

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Article Published 15 Mar 2019 Last modified 11 May 2021
4 min read
Photo: © Salvatore Petrantoni, WaterPIX /EEA
Our planet is facing unprecedented challenges to its environment and climate, which together threaten our well-being. Yet, it is not too late to take decisive action. The task might seem daunting but we still have the possibility to reverse some of the negative trends, adapt to minimise harm, restore crucial ecosystems and protect much stronger what we still have. To achieve long-term sustainability, we need to approach the environment, climate, economy and society as inseparable parts of the same entity.

Change has been a constant feature of our planet. Its landmass, oceans, atmosphere, climate and life on earth have always been changing. What makes current changes different from the past is their unprecedented pace and scale and the factors and drivers behind them. Extreme events, such as once in a 100-year storms, heat waves, flooding and droughts, have become our new reality. Press headlines around the world point to a climate and environmental crisis, affecting the future of our species. 

Global climate is changing and the change is man-made

Whatever the term we choose to use is — “our new reality” or “multiple crises” — the facts are clear. The global climate is changing and this change is man-made. Our economies’ dependence on fossil fuels, land use practices and global deforestation are increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, which in turn change the global climate. It is also clear that climate change is affecting everyone and every corner of our planet, including Europe. Some communities might suffer extensive heat waves and droughts, while others might face more frequent and more severe storms. People, nature and the economy are all impacted by climate change.

Biodiversity lost at unprecedented rate

Science is also firm on the fact that the diversity of life on earth is being lost at an unsustainable rate. Every year, many species are declared extinct, as their habitats continue to get destroyed, fragmented or polluted. Some species, including pollinators like bees and butterflies that are vital to our wellbeing, have seen their populations dramatically reduced due to widespread use of pesticides. Pollutants generated by economic activities accumulate in the environment, reducing ecosystems’ ability to regenerate and provide us vital services. Environmental degradation affects not only plants and animals but also people.

Consumption and production systems are unsustainable

The 21st century has also been marked by economic and financial crisis. Research confirms that our consumption and production systems are simply unsustainable. The linear economic model — turning raw materials into goods that are used, consumed and then discarded — does not only lead to accumulating amounts of pollution and waste but also to global competition for natural resources. Global networks can spread more than materials, goods and pollutants: a crisis starting in the finance sector in one country can spread across the globe and cause years-long economic stagnation and contraction.

It is also clear that the benefits of economic growth are not shared equally around the world. Income levels vary significantly between and within countries, regions and cities. Even in Europe, with living standards well above the global average, there are communities and groups living with incomes below the poverty line. Unfortunately, some of these communities and people are also more vulnerable to environmental hazards. They are more likely to live in areas exposed to air pollution and flooding and in houses with insufficient insulation to protect them from extreme cold and heat. The groups enjoying the benefits are not necessarily those bearing the costs.

Should current trends continue, regardless of their country and income level, future generations will be faced with more extreme temperatures and weather events, fewer species, growing resource scarcity and more pollution. Given this outlook, it is not surprising that thousands of young Europeans are demonstrating on the streets, urging policy makers to take more ambitious and effective action to mitigate climate change.

Another future is possible

Over the past 40 years, Europe has been putting in place policies to tackle specific problems, such as air pollution and water pollution. Some of these policies have had remarkable results. Europeans enjoy cleaner air and cleaner bathing waters. A greater share of municipal waste is recycled. More and more land and marine areas are protected. The European Union has been reducing its greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 levels. Billions of euros have been invested in more liveable cities and sustainable mobility. Energy generated from renewable sources grew exponentially…

In this period, our knowledge and understanding of the environment have also expanded, underlining the fact that people, the environment and the economy are all parts of the same system. In the 25 years since its founding, the European Environment Agency has been connecting and developing these spheres of knowledge to enhance our systemic understanding. People cannot live well if the environment and the economy are in bad health. Inequality in the distribution of benefits, such as economic wealth and cleaner air, and costs, including pollution and yields lost to drought, will continue causing social unrest.

These facts can be difficult to accept. Similarly, established governance structures, consumer habits and preferences can be difficult to change. Yet, despite the magnitude of the task, it is still possible to build a sustainable future. This entails changing some of our current practices, for example, by cutting environmentally harmful subsidies, phasing out polluting technologies and supporting sustainable alternatives. A carbon-neutral, circular economy can reduce demands on our natural capital and limit the rise in global temperatures. Changing our course will also require changing our habits and behaviours, for example, in the way we move and what we eat. The knowledge to steer this transition towards long-term sustainability is there. There is also growing public support for change. Now, we need to assume responsibility and accelerate this change.

Hans Bruyninckx

Hans Bruyninckx

EEA Executive Director

The editorial published in the March 2019 issue of the EEA Newsletter 01/2019


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