Towards global sustainability

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Article Published 14 Sep 2015 Last modified 18 May 2021
4 min read
Photo: © Leyla Emektar, Picture2050 /EEA
In August this year, more than 190 countries reached a consensus on the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. And later this month, Heads of State will adopt this Agenda along with its Sustainable Development Goals and targets in New York. Unlike their predecessors, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are both for developing and developed countries and focus on a broader range of sustainable development topics. Many of the 17 SDGs include elements related to the environment, resource use or climate change.

It is encouraging to see this global and more comprehensive commitment to sustainability. Recognising that sustainable development is both a challenge and a necessity for developing and developed countries is certainly a step in the right direction.

In this context, the overall objective of the European Union’s 7th Environment Action Programme is in line with the SDGs: ‘In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits’. A significant number of measures have been put in place in the EU to achieve this goal. However, the global nature of our economy and our environment makes it more difficult for countries or groups of countries acting together (such as the EU) to solve environmental problems on their own. For example, regardless of where they were released, greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global atmospheric concentrations, producing impacts far from the source — and potentially far into the future.

Without a global effort and transition to true sustainability, we risk undermining well-being and quality of life across the planet. Our report ‘The European environment — state and outlook 2015’ (SOER 2015) shows that current consumption and production patterns enhance our quality of life — and paradoxically put it at risk at the same time.

Approaching limits

SOER 2015 also points out that there are indications that our economies are approaching the ecological limits within which they are embedded, and that we are already experiencing some of the effects of physical and environmental resource constraints. Available estimates suggest that total global consumption exceeds the planet's regenerative capacity by more than 50%. In other words, we are consuming more than what our planet can produce in a given period without weakening its production capacity.

Some global megatrends cause additional concern. Today, less than 2 billion of the global population of 7 billion are regarded as middle class consumers. By 2050, the number of people on the planet is expected to reach 9 billion, with more than 5 billion belonging to the middle class. This growth is likely to intensify global competition for resources and to exert additional demands on ecosystems.

Global materials use may double by 2030. World demand for energy and water are both projected to rise by between 30% and 40% over the next 20 years. Similarly, total demand for food, feed, and fibre is projected to grow by about 60% between now and 2050.

Escalating resource scarcities and increased competition raise concerns about security of access to supplies of key resources. Growing concerns about food, water and energy security have fuelled transnational land acquisitions in the last 5–10 years, primarily in developing countries.

Europe and global sustainability

The European Union is an important global player as a producer and a consumer. Most European countries’ ecological footprint currently exceeds their available biologically productive area, or 'biocapacity'. Moreover, given the EU’s trade with the rest of the world, a considerable share of the environmental pressures associated with consumption in the EU is felt outside the EU's territory. Furthermore, the share of the environmental footprint of EU demand that is exerted outside EU borders has increased during the past decade for land, water, and material use, as well as for air emissions.

In recent years, global environmental issues have been framed in terms of tipping points, limits, and gaps. This framing has not yet been reflected in societies, economies, finance systems, political ideologies and knowledge systems, which still do not operate with the idea of planetary boundaries or limits. However, our planet has limited amounts of key resources such as water and land.

In a global economic system bound by limited resources and faced with growing global demand and environmental degradation, a resource-efficient, green economy is the only viable option. A transition to green economy entails fundamental changes to the way we produce and consume goods and services, build cities, transport people and goods, grow food and so on.

Policies aimed at greening the economy do not need to be seen as hurdles or costly. On the contrary, they can be turned into opportunities. Many economic sectors in Europe have succeeded reducing material demand and emissions or breaking the link between economic growth and emissions. For example, the environment industry sector grew by more than 50% in size between 2000 and 2011. It is one of the few economic sectors in the EU to have flourished since the 2008 financial crisis.

Similarly, population growth and increasing competition for resources can also be seen as forces bringing about the necessary systemic change. To accommodate them, we can start by building spatially planned cities worldwide, with key systems, such as energy, mobility and transport, that do not exert pressure on natural capital and are as close to ‘zero-carbon’ and ‘zero waste’ as possible.


Hans Bruyninckx

EEA Executive Director

Editorial published in the issue no. 2015/3 of the EEA newsletter, September 2015


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