We consume too much, in an unsustainable manner, and transitioning to sustainability is hard. It becomes even harder when we face multiple crises at the same time. The nature of the many crises we face means that now, more than ever, we need to stick to our long-term sustainability goals and policy aims and anchor these environmental and wellbeing aims into the new priority areas like security and competitiveness.

To achieve its ambitious environmental and climate goals, through a socially just transition, Europe needs to radically change the systems of production and consumption such as food, energy and mobility systems.

Environmental issues are inseparable from broader sustainability issues, such as social and economic ones. Significant changes in any one dimension (e.g. environmental) will affect the others (e.g. socio-economic). Changes in the way we produce energy, for example, moving away from fossil fuels, can leave whole regions which were dependent on coal mining prey to unemployment and poverty — if the socio-economic dimensions are not factored in (by retraining the workforce, investing in new workplaces and so on).

The change cannot come from traditional policy responses alone or just from a change in technologies. To avoid lock-ins, consumption patterns, individual and collective behaviours and mentalities need to change as well, moving away from consumerism, individualism and short-termism. For example, changes like moving away from owning a car towards ridesharing or using public transportation can be difficult to adopt for individuals, and car producers could lobby against the new solutions.

Strong coordination is needed among the international community. Achieving climate neutrality in Europe by 2050 will have only a limited effect on climate change mitigation if other countries do not take similar action. International agreements, such as the Paris Agreement and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, and Sustainable Development Goals are key to global action.

Achieving the EU’s sustainability goals may also trigger transboundary effects: it can potentially lead to the externalisation of the same environmental problems, through imports and exports.

Europeans enjoy one of the highest material living standards in the world, but that comes at an unsustainable price. Europe is exceeding its limits when it comes to planetary boundaries:

  • Carbon, water, land and material footprints per capita are up to 2.4 times higher in the EU than at the global level.
  • In the period 2010-2020, Europe's consumption footprint decreased slightly, by around 4%.
  • Household-adjusted disposable income in the EU is among the highest in the world. The EU also has the highest expenditure on social protection and the lowest poverty and inequality rates across the G20 region.
  • The EU is highly dependent on metal ores and fossil fuel resources from the rest of the world. Reliable access to critical raw materials has become a growing concern, as many are used in high-tech products and emerging innovations such as information and communications technology (ICT)-related and renewable energy technologies.

The European Green Deal is a package of policy initiatives, which aims to set the EU on the path to a green transition, with the ultimate goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2050. It supports the transformation of the EU into a fair and prosperous society with a modern and competitive economy. It underlines the need for a holistic and cross-sectoral approach in which all relevant policy areas contribute to the ultimate climate-related goal. The package includes initiatives covering the climate, the environment, energy, transport, industry, agriculture and sustainable finance — all of which are strongly interlinked. These goals are also implemented and supported through the EU's 8th Environmental Action Programme.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, was adopted on 25 September 2015 by Heads of State and Government at a special UN summit. The Agenda is a commitment to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development by 2030 worldwide, ensuring that no-one is left behind.

The EU has played an active role throughout the process and is committed to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs within the EU and in development cooperation with partner countries. The Agenda reflects many of the EU's priorities for sustainable development.

Meeting EU environment policy targets by 2030 will be challenging

The EU 8th Environment Action Programme (EAP) builds on the European Green Deal and sets the framework for EU environmental policy until 2030.

The European Environment Agency’s (EEA) first monitoring report on the Programme shows that the EU may not meet most of the monitoring targets outlined in the European Commission’s 8th EAP Monitoring Communication.

The report takes stock of progress towards Europe’s key environment and climate goals, based on 28 indicators and monitoring targets.

According to the EEA analysis, the EU may not meet the majority of the targets by 2030. The situation looks particularly challenging when it comes to the 8th EAP priority objective of reducing environmental and climate pressures related to production and consumption. This includes targets on energy consumption, rate of circular material use, and share of area under organic farming, which all look very unlikely to be achieved by 2030.

Picture of a small boy wearing a hat with a suitcase beside him standing in the middle of an up-and-down street leading to a town in the background with trees on either side of the street.

Growth without economic growth

Economic growth is closely linked to increases in production, consumption and resource use and has detrimental effects on the natural environment and human health.

It is unlikely that a long-lasting, absolute decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures and impacts can be achieved at the global scale. Growth is culturally, politically and institutionally ingrained. Societies need to rethink what is meant by growth and progress and their meaning for global sustainability. The various communities that live simply can offer inspiration for social innovation.

The European Green Deal and other political initiatives for a sustainable future require not only technological change but also changes in consumption and social practices.

Imagining an agricultural sector fit for the future

While global food chains, market competition, industrial processes and increasing productivity have turned agriculture into a profitable economic sector, it is also one of the biggest contributors to environmental and sustainability challenges in Europe and worldwide.

Considering these new challenges, it is even more urgent to rethink agriculture and food systems to make them resilient and sustainable. We should also be asking broader questions. For example, what roles might agriculture and the food system play in a sustainable future? Which of agriculture’s functions should society strive to preserve and support?

Our briefing reflects on what makes agriculture unsustainable today — and the types of agriculture we may want to preserve and support. It is part of our series 'Narratives for change'.

Picture of a man walking away from a bulldozer after having made circular patterns in the sand.

Socio-economic impacts of the transition to a climate-neutral economy

The move to a climate-neutral economy doesn't only represent risks and costs, but it has the potential to create exciting new opportunities with net employment gains, new business sectors and a healthier environment. The transition to a climate-neutral economy will however have disproportionate effects on certain regions and risks leaving some groups behind.

Eurofound and the European Environment Agency have brought together EU level and regional experts and stakeholders to explore what these socioeconomic impacts could be and how policy could respond, presented in a joint foresight study.

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