Opening session on Green Week - Past lessons future challenges

Speech Published 12 Jun 2007 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Speech by Professor Jacqueline McGlade Executive Director, European Environment Agency - Green Week 2007: Opening Plenary Session, Brussels, 12 June 2007

Moderator, Ladies and gentlemen,

Two weeks ago, at the invitation of the Romanian government, I visited one of the treasures of Europe's biodiversity - the Danube Delta.

The Danube is the most international river in the world. Almost 3,000 kilometres long, it flows through 10 countries and drains 8% of Europe.

As it reaches the Black Sea, the Danube fans out into one of the largest wetland areas in the world, containing an expanse of reed beds, forests, dunes and lakes.

It is home to 325 important bird species, including the magnificent pelicans which have come to symbolise the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve. In total, over five and a half thousand species of fauna and flora are recorded from in the delta.

But this complex ecosystem also supports - and is supported by - around 15,000 humans who live and make their living in the biosphere reserve. To take a boat and visit these small, scattered villages perched on strips of land emerging from the waterways of the Danube, close to the Ukrainian border, is to get a true sense of the diversity of Europe.

At the start of this year I took part in an event at another extreme of Europe. In Tromsø in northern Norway I delivered a speech at the Arctic Frontiers Conference entitled "The Arctic Environment - Why Europe should Care".

Although the Arctic's unique nature is relatively undisturbed, there are growing signs of threats that could potentially destabilise its sustainable use by indigenous peoples. Climate change is not the only threat to the Arctic.

Amongst other threats are the changes caused by industrial activities and infrastructure developments in the region and their associated impacts on the distribution, health and availability of wildlife resources. The strategic importance of the Arctic Ocean and its neighbouring seas also means that there are likely to be increased pressures and the potential for accidental pollution through an increased volume of maritime transport. More worrying are the inequalities that have built up in the distribution of economic benefits arising from the exploitation of natural resources, with industrialised countries outside the Arctic being the primary beneficiaries of Arctic resources.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the Arctic has thus emerged as a region of international significance - worthy of its own Lonely Planet Guide. In effect, this remote area - once the subject of romantic visions of igloos, icebergs and polar bears - has entered the modern world of global commercialism with its wide range of associations and self-interests.

As a European I am truly humble in the face of the rich diversity of our continent. As a professional in the field of environmental protection, I am aware in my day-to-day work of the complexity of the continent whose sustainable development we are trying to ensure for future generations.

I am delighted to take part in this opening session of Green Week 2007 which seeks to put European environment policy in its historic perspective and look at achievements, failures and lessons for the future. In doing so, however, we should be mindful of the diversity of the European environment that we are trying to protect.

A couple of months ago DG Environment of the Commission placed a video news release on their website to illustrate 50 years of efforts to protect Europe's environment. After highlighting some achievements (tackling smog and acid rain, cleaning up rivers and beaches, boosting recycling and regulating hazardous substances), it concludes that the challenges of 1957 are not the same as those of 2007. But the video ends with some rousing words:

"The European Union has been a major force for protecting the world we live in; its not going to stop now".

The organisation which I represent - the European Environment Agency - has a key role to play in helping the European Union remain a driving force.

We are an independent EU agency required to support sustainable development and help achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe's environment, through the provision of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information.

We were set up by Council regulation in 1990 and started operation in Copenhagen 1994. We should all have great respect for the legislators who agreed our regulation, because not only did they create an agency, they had the vision to establish a Europe-wide network - the European Environment Information and Observation Network (known as Eionet).

We rely on this network of more than 350 organisations across our 32 member countries to provide data and information and work with us to produce assessments, policy evaluations, technical analyses, models and scenarios for the European Commission, the European Parliament, the member countries themselves, international organisations and civil society as well as accessible material for the general public.

Anyone with a passing experience of environmental policy reporting in the past knows what it used to be like - box loads of papers sent to Brussels (often as much as a couple of years late after the reporting deadline) to be processed through the system and emerge as an implementation report that would never become a best-seller.

From the outset, we tried to do things differently in Copenhagen. We saw the Agency as the centre of a web of information providers who should be encouraged to use electronic tools to feed information on the state of the environment.

The gap in reporting performance between the countries at the top - Austria, Latvia and Sweden - and those at the bottom - Turkey, Iceland and Portugal - may be large. But peer pressure and competition is a powerful tool to encourage countries to deliver what is required of them and to allow us to take stock of the state of Europe's environment.


And that is what we do - report on the state of Europe's environment. Unlike Agencies elsewhere, we do not police the legislation. That task falls to others in Europe.

Our primary objective is to provide the facts. How have 50 years of European co-operation impacted upon Europe's environment?

In October this year at the Belgrade Ministerial Conference we will deliver an assessment of the state of the pan-European environment as part of the ‘Environment for Europe' process. This now brings together 56 countries across three continents to jointly address environment challenges. In support of this process, the Agency has prepared a series of assessments to provide policy-relevant, up-to-date and reliable information on the interactions between the environment and society for the pan-European region.

Our report to Belgrade after the summer will be the fourth report in the series. The first comprehensive assessment of the state of the pan-European environment (the Dobris assessment) was presented in Sofia in 1995. Updated assessments were presented at the Ministerial Conferences in Aarhus in 1998 and in Kiev in 2003.

In addition, our Regulation requires us to deliver every five years reports on the state of the European environment covering our member countries.

The last state and outlook report on the European environment was published 18 months ago. Looking back, the previous report, published in 1999 had concluded that environmental quality in the European Union was mixed.
We also concluded that the unsustainable development of some key economic sectors was the major barrier to further improvements.

Eight years later, these remain our key conclusions:

  • we face increasing urbanisation and land abandonment;
  • climate change is already here;
  • progress on energy demand management is slow;
  • we are healthier, but exposure to pollutants remains;
  • we are depleting our natural resources.

But let us imagine for a moment a Europe in which there was no environmental policy.

What would the European environment look like then?

  • Lead would still be being pumped into the air from much of our car fleet.
  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) would have further depleted the ozone layer.
  • Nitrogen oxide emissions from road transport would be 10 times higher.
  • The life in our rivers, lakes and estuaries would still be choked by effluent, not to mention the disgusting prospect of bathing in coastal waters polluted by sewage.
  • Increasing swathes of land would be eaten up by expanding landfills for waste -- or alternatively, the incinerators set up to deal with the waste, would not be operating to such strict standards.

The list could go on and on.

And what would the impact of all this be on the health of Europe's citizens?

As it is, Europe loses 200 million working days a year to air pollution-related illness alone.

Imagine how much higher this figure would have been in the absence of environmental controls.

So the European legislation works ..... when it is fully implemented and enforced.

Were we to fast-forward thirty years, it would be my strong hope that we would be able to report significant environmental improvements, not least as a result of reversing unsustainable trends in sectors such as energy, agriculture and transport.

Europe cannot continue down the path of achieving its short-term objectives by impacting disproportionately on the rest of the world's environment through its ecological footprint.

Europeans' consumption may be half of that of people living in the USA, but it is double that of people living in Brazil, India and China.

So policy makers must be farsighted and integrated in their thinking.

We need a gradual shift away from taxes on labour and investment towards taxes on pollution and the inefficient use of materials and land.

We also need reforms in the way that subsidies are applied to transport, housing, energy and agriculture.

We need subsidies encouraging sustainable practices and efficient technologies.


Ladies and gentlemen,

In closing, let me offer a few words about how technology might not just help us in protecting the environment, but also about how technology might help us in environmental policy-making in 50 years time.

The past, it is said, is a foreign country. Certainly, things were done differently in 1957, when the Treaty of Rome was signed. We can be sure that things will also be done very differently in the 2057 when the treaty is 100 years old.

Our planet will most likely have changed significantly too. Biodiversity, marine ecosystems, land and water resources, air pollution, health and climate change are just some of the environmental challenges facing us.

The EU's renewed Sustainable Development Strategy says that the "needs of the present generation should be met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". That's a tall order. But, experience shows that EU environmental policy works.

We need to plan further ahead. In day-to-day life we are continuously confronted with long-term problems. They cannot be solved within the short-term perspective of one or two legislative cycles. Policy making needs to raise its game to meet these challenges. It must become more far sighted.

Robust, far-sighted policy requires better, more detailed information. We have made a lot of progress in this direction. We already know, for example, many facts about climate change and demographic patterns. Long-term studies have been developed for the future of agriculture, transport and energy, climate change and air pollution, to name just a few. But we are only beginning to realise the full potential of environmental information.

The European Environment Agency wants to drive technology, particularly the internet, in new directions in terms of its interaction with the environment. This vision already has an acronym, SEIS, the Shared Environmental Information System.

Environmental information is currently collected by a multitude of organisations using techniques ranging from satellite observation from space to volunteers knee-deep in mud collecting water samples for laboratory analysis. We aim to gather together all this information, make it user-friendly and available electronically in one place for decision-makers and individual citizens alike.

Already the EEA hosts ‘Ozone-web', a website allowing users to check ozone levels in cities across Europe. This service, of particularly value to at risk groups such as asthma sufferers, illustrates perfectly how we can maximise the value of information by using modern technology. WISE (the Water Information System for Europe), will be launched this spring, bringing a wealth of information on Europe's water and waterways to the fingertips of millions. It is this vision of real-time data for real-time decision-making that is driving us forward.

The scale of the environmental challenges should not paralyse us into inaction. Just as the scale of the problems facing post war Europe spurred the Treaty of Rome and un-imagined co-operation across the continent of Europe, so can these challenges help us raise our awareness and develop new, sustainable patterns of living, growing, producing and consuming.

If we are to protect the ecosystems like the Danube Delta and the Arctic that I started with at the outset, we need to take the long view, starting now.

Thank you for your attention.


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