Do we live in a 'green economy'? New report assesses progress in Europe

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News Published 16 May 2012 Last modified 15 Jul 2016
4 min read
Photo: © David Fisher
Despite progress in some areas, Europe must do more to create the 'green economy' needed for the continent to become sustainable, according to a new report from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

The focus on green economy in Rio reflects the issue’s importance as a key environmental priority, and is particularly timely, given that it can provide a path to renewed economic growth and job creation in response to the current severe economic crises facing Europe.

Professor Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director

Green economy is set to be one of the two main themes at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June this year. Simply put, a 'green economy' is one in which environmental, economic and social policies and innovations enable society to use resources efficiently, while maintaining the natural systems that sustain us.

"The focus on green economy in Rio reflects the issue's importance as a key environmental priority, and is particularly timely, given that it can provide a path to renewed economic growth and job creation in response to the current severe economic crises facing Europe," EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade said.

The 'Environmental indicator report 2012' presents established indicators that illustrate progress towards improving resource efficiency, and indicators that depict the risk of passing environmental thresholds. Jointly, they enable policymakers and the public to reflect on where Europe stands vis-à-vis some aspects of a green economy.

Several of the indicators presented in this report show encouraging trends, while others point to issues that require urgent attention.

European environmental policies have helped Europe use resources more efficiently. However, policies aimed at making ecosystems more resilient have been less successful. Both are central to Europe achieving a green economy and becoming sustainable, according to the report.

The report emphasises that improving resource efficiency remains necessary, but stresses that this in itself may not be sufficient to ensure a resilient, sustainable natural environment. In some cases, reduced ecosystem resilience may even be irreversible, for example biodiversity loss leading to species extinction, or when environmental or climate tipping points are passed.

Following these findings, the report also considers the merits of designing policy objectives and targets that more explicitly address the links between resource efficiency, ecosystem resilience and human well-being to support the transition to a green economy.

Key findings

The report uses well-established environmental indicators, assessing progress towards a green economy along six environmental themes.

  • Nitrogen emissions and threats to biodiversity: progress has been made to reduce pollution causing acidification and eutrophication. However, nitrogen emissions from sewage and agriculture remain high, and these pollutants continue to damage ecosystems and habitats.
  • Carbon emissions and climate change: domestic greenhouse gas emissions have decreased substantially across the European Union but continue to rise on the global level. Rising temperatures threaten ecosystem resilience.
  • Air pollution and air quality: air pollutant emissions have decreased in many parts of Europe; nonetheless, poor air quality is still a serious health issue, particularly in many cities.
  • The marine environment: overfishing, shipping and other maritime activities put pressure on the marine environment; leading to altered, often less resilient marine ecosystems.
  • Stress on water resources: managing water use and demand has helped reduce water use in all sectors; but high levels of water stress still endanger ecosystems in European water bodies. This problem is exacerbated by climate change and inefficient water use in some areas.
  • Use of material resources: there has been progress in 'decoupling' economic growth and material resource use. However, overall consumption and production patterns are not sustainable.


Green economy across Europe 

The report was presented to members of parliament (MPs) from more than 20 EU Member States during a visit to the EEA on Monday 14 May 2012.

Slovak MP Mikuláš Huba, Chairman of the Agriculture and Environment Committee said: "Green economy is mentioned in the government's programme in Slovakia. This is a positive first step, but we are yet to see what might develop in terms of action." He added: "I believe it is very important to carefully consider the outcomes of economic decisions, so growth and job creation (even if called 'green') do not result environmental destruction."

José Llorens Torres MP, who is President of the Spanish government's Commission on Agriculture, Food and Environment, explained the need for a green economy in his country: "Spain has to both comply with EU objectives to reduce carbon emissions, and we have to reduce the deficit in line with the demands of the EU."

UK MP Joan Walley, Chair of the UK government's Environmental Audit Committee said: "Everyone understands what is meant by business as usual but few have signed up for the step change now urgently needed if we are to withstand the pressures on the earth's natural resources. The EEA's measured and robust research is the necessary point of departure if we are to safeguard our future. Their work needs to be understood, applied and used by all government departments including the Treasury."