Europe has achieved unprecedented levels of prosperity and well-being during recent decades, and its social, health and environmental standards rank among the highest in the world. Still, the EU’s production and consumption systems are hindering its ability to meet sustainability goals.  

We are consuming resources faster than nature produces or replenishes them. Economic growth has long been associated with increased demand for resources, and the world economy is expected to continue to grow. There are different ways of addressing this sustainability challenge.

Production and consumption systems vary significantly across Europe. Food, energy and mobility systems account for much of Europe’s pressures on the environment and health but are also a foundation for our well-being. The way we produce food or energy requires key resources like water and land and often generates pollution, and greenhouse gases, affecting human health as well as nature.

Consumers can play a role in shifting consumption patterns, whereby reducing pressures linked to consumption. But sustainable consumption can only be achieved when sustainable products are produced and presented as viable options to consumers, and ultimately disposed of. These require systemic changes.

Overall, global and European trends point to continuing sustainability challenges but also to opportunities for positive change. For example, while new technology might save resources and alleviate environmental pressures, it can also increase energy, and natural resource demands. In this context, European policies like the European Green Deal and its circular economy packages aim to make production more efficient, save resources and facilitate more sustainable consumption.

Our assessments and indicators show the latest trends related to Europe's production and consumption.

  • Europe’s consumption patterns are unsustainable. Europe is exceeding various planetary boundaries and its particulate matter emissions, freshwater eutrophication and chemical releases are having harmful impacts.
  • Intensive production and agricultural practices within the EU, along with production abroad driven by EU demand, significantly pollute air, land and water.
  • Key indicators, such as the consumption footprint and material footprint show no signs of significant reductionss.
  • Housing and food are the most significant consumption domains, accounting for more than half of the impacts caused by EU consumption, both within and outside the EU.
  • Transport is another sector with significant impacts linked to rising demand.
  • Even though releases of pollutants by industry have generally decreased over the last decade, the impacts and costs of pollution from industry remain high.
  • The energy sector has shown some progress. The total amount of energy we use in the EU peaked in 2006. Primary energy consumption went down by 13% and final energy consumption by (% since 2005.

Improving production and consumption processes and patterns requires a transformation of Europe’s core production and consumption systems through policies like the European Green Deal, as well as broader changes in norms and priorities across all levels of society.

The European Green Deal aims to transform the EU into a modern, resource-efficient competitive economy. Regarding consumption and production, the deal focuses on providing access to more healthy and affordable food, public transport, and longer-lasting products that can be repaired, recycled, and reused. There is also a strong focus on cutting emissions through cleaner energy and technological innovation. These goals are supported through legislative packages under the circular economy action plan.

People also play a significant role in creating change. Promising social innovations from citizens, cities and communities like ridesharing and home-sharing have recently emerged across Europe as more sustainable ways of meeting needs like accomodation and mobility.

Production systems and pollution

The manufacture of goods is a key part of Europe’s production activity and occurs in large and small factories across the continent. Production also includes agriculture, which is significant in terms of both its scale and the associated pollution risks.

The processes involved in providing the goods that we use range from simple assembly operations to complex industrial activities involving toxic and persistent chemicals. All of these activities result in some kind of emissions. Therefore, production can be a significant source of pressure on the environment — with the potential to cause serious pollution if not carefully managed.

What about Europe's consumption?

The EU's Eighth Environment Action Programme calls for the EU to significantly reduce by 2030 its consumption footprint — the environmental and climate impacts that result from EU citizens’ consumption.

This footprint decreased only slightly, by around 4%, between 2010 and 2020. And it is uncertain if the EU will achieve a significant reduction in its consumption footprint, especially since it has increased since 2016. Major efforts are needed to both reduce the overall level of consumption and increase the use of products that have less impact on the climate and environment.

The pros and cons of digitalisation

While digitalisation can improve literacy, information access and interconnectedness, its overall environmental implications are uncertain.

On the positive side, digitalisation can help us track products better and make production processes more efficient. Still, the exponential increase in personal connected devices and sensors requires more energy consumption and waste. The increasingly short lifespan of our phones, computers and other devices contribute to a rapid increase in electronics waste, which is especially difficult to recycle or dispose of responsibly.

By using electronics for longer, we can significantly reduce impacts and contribute to meeting EU environment, climate and circularity objectives.  

What is on the menu?

Our food preferences can play a substantial role in environental and climate efforts. Eating less meat can especially help to decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from livestock, which account for nearly 15% of all human-caused emissions. Dairy consumption is also heavily linked to methane emissions.

Artificial meat is cultivated in vitro from the stem cells of living animals. This new protein source could offer an alternative solution to the rising global demand for meat consumption.  

Even if the production costs of artificial and plant-based meat and plant-based milk decrease in the coming years, their popularity will largely depend on society’s acceptance of them and reliable food safety protocols.  

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