Press Release

Europe's environmental progress at risk from unsustainable economic

Change language
Press Release Published 12 May 2003 Last modified 28 Jun 2016
5 min read
The state of the environment across Europe has improved in several respects over the past decade, but much of the progress is likely to be wiped out by economic growth because governments have yet to make significant strides towards decoupling environmental pressures from economic activity.


Copenhagen/Geneva/Brussels, 12 May 2003

Europe's environmental progress at risk from unsustainable economic activities

The state of the environment across Europe has improved in several respects over the past decade, but much of the progress is likely to be wiped out by economic growth because governments have yet to make significant strides towards decoupling environmental pressures from economic activity.

This is one of the key messages from the European Environment Agency's latest assessment of the environment in Europe, published today.

Europe's Environment: the third assessment has been prepared for the 'Environment for Europe' ministerial conference taking place in Kiev, Ukraine, on 21-23 May under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). The two previous assessments were published by the Agency in 1995 and 1998 for the conferences held in Sofia, Bulgaria, and in Aarhus, Denmark.

The new report covers a total of 52 countries, including for the first time the whole of the Russian Federation and the 11 other Eastern European, Caucasus and Central Asian (EECCA) states.

It shows that most of the progress towards environmental improvement continues to come from 'end-of-pipe' measures to limit pollution or as a result of economic recession and restructuring in many parts of Europe.

"We know from the past that these gains will be lost again if economic growth continues to be based on traditional, environmentally damaging activities, still prevalent, rather than on more sustainable, eco-efficient options," said Gordon McInnes, EEA Interim Executive Director.

"This is a particular risk for the EU accession countries and the EECCA states, to which large amounts of manufacturing industry have been transferred from western Europe and elsewhere," Mr McInnes added.

While highlighting wide differences in the environmental situation between and within the different regional groupings, the report confirms that environmental policies, when properly developed and implemented, have in several fields led to significant improvements in the environment and to lower pressures on it.

For example, substantial reductions have been achieved in Europe's emissions of substances that damage the atmospheric ozone layer. Decreases in acidifying emissions to air and in emissions to water from point sources - such as factories - have generally improved the quality of both media. Protection of the habitats of biologically important plant and animal species has brought some improvement in their situation.

In contrast, environmental policies to curb waste have made no significant headway, and pressures are still increasing on some natural resources, especially fish stocks, top soil and land. Emissions to water from diffuse sources such as agriculture remain a problem.

Economic and social transition since the early 1990s - with western Europe developing into a more service-oriented society and the rest of the continent moving towards a market economy, albeit at different speeds - has resulted in environmental improvements in some fields but degradation in others.

Europe, overall, has seen reductions in its emissions of greenhouse gases. In Central and Eastern Europe and EECCA there has been less pressure on water resources from agriculture and industry. In these countries economic restructuring has also been the major driving force behind reductions in emissions of air pollutants.

On the negative side, land abandonment due to economic restructuring in Central and Eastern Europe and EECCA is threatening biodiversity. Economic growth is making it more difficult for many western European countries to meet their national targets for limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

Urban development and transport infrastructure is covering over large areas of productive soil and fragmenting major animal and plant habitats in many places across the region. Overfishing is threatening marine natural resources.

As environmental improvements in these areas are mainly determined by the general economic situation, much of the progress seen to date is unlikely to be sustained under conditions of continuing or renewed economic growth. At the same time, many of the negative impacts are likely to be exacerbated.

This trend is already apparent in the field of transport, where a marked shift towards road and aviation in place of more environment-friendly modes is under way, increasing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Human health continues to face a range of environment-related threats. Generation of hazardous waste is increasing across Europe. The quality of drinking water remains a concern throughout the region, while exposure to particulate matter is now the biggest threat to human health from air pollution in western European cities.

The report concludes that the formulation and implementation of policies which take full account of environmental concerns needs to be accelerated if Europe is to ensure proper protection of its environment and succeed in making the transition to more sustainable development.

"The EU Sustainable Development Strategy is a step in the right direction but needs more operational action by the relatively well-off EU Member States to remain environmentally credible," said Mr McInnes.

He added: "What is most lacking is a decision-making framework that takes proper account of the competing but often complementary economic, social and environmental considerations. The various initiatives on European regional energy cooperation are a good example of such a framework in action."

An embargoed summary of the report is available now for download at
The full report will be available upon expiry of the embargo at

Notes for Editors

  • The Kiev ministerial conference is the fifth such event held under the 'Environment for Europe' process begun in 1991. Information about the conference is available at and
  • The Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia (EECCA) states are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russian Federation, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

About the EEA The European Environment Agency is the main source of information used by the European Union and its Member States in developing environment policies. The Agency aims to support sustainable development and to help achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe's environment through the provision of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information to policy-making agents and the public. Established by the EU in 1990 and operational in Copenhagen since 1994, the EEA is the hub of the European environment information and observation network (Eionet), a network of around 300 bodies across Europe through which it both collects and disseminates environment-related data and information.

The Agency, which is open to all nations that share its objectives, currently has 31 member countries. These are the 15 EU Member States; Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein, which are members of the European Economic Area; and the 13 EU accession and candidate countries, namely Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, the Slovak Republic and Turkey (from this month). The EEA is the first EU body to take in the accession countries. Negotiations on EEA membership are also under way with Switzerland.


Document Actions