Environment 200 - Agenda for Change

Speech Published 20 Apr 1999 Last modified 16 Oct 2014
Speech by Domingo JIMENEZ-BELTRAN


European Parliament Public Hearing

"Environment 200 - Agenda for Change"


Brussels - 20 April 1999


  Environment in the European Union - Situation and prospects



Domingo Jim鮥z-Beltrᮦlt;br> Executive Director
European Environment Agency

Note: The opinions expressed by the speaker are of a personal nature and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EEA, the European Commission or any other Community Institute.


Environment in the European Union - Situation and prospects

It has been a long way, but still short time since the EEA published the "Dobris" report on Europe’s Environment in 1995, and now the Agency is about to publish the report on "Environment in the European Union at the Turn of the Century" closing the second multiannual reporting cycle on Europe’s Environment. This year 1999 will also see the first annual report based on Indicators "Environment Signals 99". In the course of this process of reporting the Agency and its reports have grown together: we have established procedures of data exchange, we know our partners better and we have extended and consolidated our network.

And what have we seen from this privileged position of a decentralised Agency, separated from the Commission and with the clear mandate to produce the best available information to support the framing and implementation of environmental policies (and now the sustainability process) and to assure that the public is properly informed? :


1. Some Basic Conclusions

While environmental policies may be even considered a success in particular at EU level (it has worked much better that MS could have done separately or out of the EU), there has not been a substantial improvement in environment quality and even less in progress towards sustainability.

This was confirmed for the whole of Europe in the report "Europe’s Environment: The Second Assessment" published in June 1998 and presented at the Aarhus Conference of Environment Ministers.

Progress in policy making, yes, but no substantial improvement yet in theenvironment! We have seen a decrease in the emissions to air and water of a number of pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide (a 50% reduction since 1980), lead (a 60% reduction since 1980), phosphorous in many water catchment areas (a 30 to 60% reduction since the 1980s) and to a lesser extent nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (a 14% reduction since 1990). Most of these have been achieved by reducing the emissions from point sources.

Most of the successes have been in emissions of substances that are the subject of International Conventions, such as ozone-depleting and acidifying substances, with significantly less progress in areas where such legal instruments are still absent, for example soil degradation or non-hazardous waste.

But then there is the less good news - even where we have succeeded in reducing emissions, in general we have seldom been able to detect any significant improvement in the state of the environment itself: we still have high nutrient concentrations in rivers, lakes and seas, chemicals are widespread, soils continue to deteriorate, waste continues to increase, we still have regular episodes of summer smog, and nature and biodiversity is still endangered.

There are a number of reasons for this apparent failure. One is that processes and interactions within the environment are often slow, resulting in large time delays between a reduction in the emission of a pollutant and recovery of the environment. That means we have to be better at anticipating problems. Perhaps the best example of this relates to the depletion of the ozone layer.

But time delays are not the only problem. It is also a question of mismatches; there is often a lack of proportion between the scale and scope of effort and the size of the problems targeted. Take the eutrophication of surface waters for example:

Much has been done to decrease the emission of phosphorus to surface waters. Industry has reduced emissions by sometimes 60 to 90%, and lowering the phosphorus contents of detergentshas brought down emissions by households significantly. In many river catchments, discharges have been reduced by 30-60%, most of which has been achieved at the end of the 1980s.

However, although there is a general improvement in phosphorus concentrations, water quality is still poor in many rivers and lakes. This may sometimes be a question of time, but often reducing phosphorus emissions is not enough to prevent eutrophication occurring - the scale of the problem requires more to be done. Nitrogen emissions are also of major concern, and nitrate concentrations in rivers are not yet falling. This is especially worrying for some coastal environments, where nitrogen concentrations are still at the same level as in 1990 and regular eutrophication episodes still occur. Groundwater quality is also being affected; concentrations of nitrate above the maximum admissible levels for drinking water, whose main source is ground water, have been found in almost all countries.

This mismatch between the scale of measures and the scale of the environmental problems seems to occur not only for inland waters, but also for greenhouse gas emissions, summer smog, pesticides in groundwater, waste, polluted sites, soil degradation and even acidification.

This mismatch seems to occur especially where societal sectors have displayed a quick growth in their activities, and where environmental policies do not have that much influence. Transport and agriculture are clear examples. In Europe, transport is now the largest source of NOx emissions, some 60%, and it is the source of about 45% of the emissions of volatile organic compounds in Western Europe.

Transport is of particular importance because of its rapid rate of growth: goods transport by road in Europe have increased by 54% since 1980, passenger transport by road by 46% in the past ten years in the EU. And passenger transport by air has increased even more rapidly, by 67% in the past ten years, in the whole of Europe. The benefits resulting from the introduction of cleaner fuels and cleaner cars cannot keep pace with such growth.

Integration of environmental imperatives into sectoral policies should not only help to meet the challenge of matching development in the sector with the requirements posed by the environment, it also presents opportunities for solving many environmental problems in one go. Our second assessment makes it clear, once again, that some sectors are causing a multitude of the major problems. Actions influencing the volume or modal split of transport could lead to improvements in climate change, acidification, summer smog, urban problems, traffic safety and atmospheric lead pollution.

I believe that the challenges ahead make a switch to such more sector-oriented environmental policies necessary, and even urgent, particularly in the light of the greenhouse gases reduction target agreed in Kyoto, the expected targets of the UNECE multi-pollutant, multi-effect protocol, and the need to reduce environmental levels of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants.

We need to accept that future improvements in environmental quality will not come directly from environmental policies, but from socio-economic policies supported by environmental policies. This includes, apart from policies on energy, transport, agriculture, tourism, etcetera, instrumental "horizontal" policies, in particular in financing and fiscal matters.

The challenges and opportunities of enlargement - Much of what I have said relates to pan-European problems, issues and opportunities, but it is also good to look at the variety in our continent. While the overall emission reductions that have been achieved are to be welcomed, we should not forget that a part of these has been due to economic restructuring in Central and Eastern Europe. This has resulted in a tremendous drop in industrial production and, for example, a 23% decrease in energy use since 1990. This implies that, even more than before, it is the countries of western Europe that are causing the largest part of the emissions in Europe.

It also means that if economic recovery in the countries in the eastern part of Europe continues - something we all look forward to-those countries may need to use all their creativity and innovation (and why not that from the rest of Europe too) to prevent huge increases in emissions and further degradation of the environment. And for this, the co-operation of all partners involved, including the financing institutions, is needed. Our assessment points to the huge potential for improvements in energy efficiency in Central and Eastern Europe and especially New Independent States, and the same probably applies for other resources. Technology, but, even more than that, wise management and innovation in general can bring huge gains here. This should be part of rethinking the approach to the environment in Eastern Europe, going from simple compliance with western European legislation as a goal, to taking the road to sustainable development and having compliance as a result. The latter might be more cost-effective and, in addition, spare nature where it is still in better shape than in other parts of Europe. And this is particularly the case for the EU Accession countries where the overall costs of compliance have been evaluated at over 100 Billion ECU. By establishing sustainable development as a goal, and compliance as a result, some short-cuts will certainly be identified of benefit for the whole of Europe. As Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard has said: "Enlargement is the biggest challenge ever for EU Environmental Policy and one of the ultimate tests for it"

A simple view - It is my understanding that the Second Assessment shows a simple grouping of policies which highlights how far we have come in tackling environmental problems:

  • Policies that are successful but late: as for stratospheric ozone depletion;
  • Policies that are successful but insufficient: acidification, eutrophication and tropospheric ozone;
  • Policies that are basically unsuccessful (not going to the heart of the matter): waste and protection of soils;
  • Policies that are partly unsuccessful and mostly insufficient: climate change (GHG emissions); urban environment (air quality and noise); inland waters; marine and coastal environments; nature (biodiversity).

And there are a few problems left that cannot be properly evaluated, involving:

  • uncertainties and large potential risks: as for chemicals and in general technological risks, including radioactivity and GMOs.

Finally, it is my understanding that there are among these some policies that may require special consideration or focus at European level because of their multiple and "pulling" effects on sustainability, without forgetting that the change of sectorial policies or driving forces is the heart of the matter. My main five areas for special consideration are:

a. Climate change or reduction of the emission of greenhouse gases, because of its crucial long term significance and the multiple benefits that will arise from action to control the relevant pollutants;

b. Waste reduction, because there is still so much to be done to implement proper waste reduction and management throughout Europe, and because of its continued linkage to economic development;

c. Chemicals, because of their widespread use and impacts, but also because information on exposures and toxicities is so scarce;

d. Nature and soil protection, for safeguarding valuable natural resources and biodiversity and its functions, which, once damaged, are difficult, if not impossible to recover;

e. Air quality could be added because it still compromises, in a direct and unavoidable way, the life and well-being of so many Europeans. At least the air we breathe should be clean!

2. How to go forward?

Above all now that the Community goal is not only environmental quality and protection at a high level (Single Act and Maastricht Treaty) but a sustainable development (Amsterdam Treaty) and where the Internal Market and the Monetary Union are instrumental?

A first step, while not enough, is to recognise that substantial improvement, even in relation to environmental quality will not be achieved by environmental policies as such but by the changes of the sectoral economic policies (energy, transport, agriculture, industry, tourism …) and instrumental ones (fiscality, planning, market organisation, …), or by means of the effects of extended (policy of policies) environmental policies in the latter (integration).

We could even say that by limiting our action to the environment or dealing with the burden of the past, we have been made busy in keeping the things wrong. While in the environment area we were denouncing and rebuilding the past (mostly by-end-of-pipe solutions), late and costly, the future has been conformed and built by the economic sectors, without paying attention to its environmental improvement and even less to sustainability. While environment initiatives had to support the burden of proof to be accepted and implemented, economic sectors and programmes have grown unquestioned invoking the market economy and even creating its own socio-economic need (the supply driven market or the FIS, facilitating infrastructure supply paradigm).

To summarise, whilst substantial fronts are being sealed off as regards environmental programmes and policies, new arenas, some of them significant, are opening up with respect to economic programmes, policies and other instruments. The Agency’s report in 1995, which dealt with the EU (The State of the Environment in the European Union - ?? 1995) highlighted the unsustainability of sectors which are growing faster than the economy, such as transport and road traffic (with their impact on the quality of the urban environment, noise pollution, acid rain, climate change, etc.) - which continues to expand at an ever faster pace - and energy (despite the relative improvement in the efficiency of the industrial sector), agriculture (where reductions in the use of fertilisers continue to be insufficient, and of course given the excessive use of pesticides), industry (in particular the chemical industry, where there is increasingly intensive production and use of chemical products) and tourism, where, as can be seen from the situation in the Mediterranean countries, increased or excessive tourism become self-destructive.

The battle for an environmentally-friendly and sustainable future must be waged by reviewing sectoral economic policies and programmes. And this calls primarily for proactive approaches (without abandoning more reactionist methods such as responding to reported offences or responsible vigilance); the aim must be to achieve an improvement in quality of life, to produce a more effective and adequate response to social and economic demands(demand management) by increasing the productivity and performance of natural and other resources (eco-efficiency). Economic policies and other instruments must therefore be assessed and optimised (examination of alternatives) from an environmental and integrated viewpoint along transparent and participatory lines.

The seriousness of the situation and the mechanisms needed to rectify it were finally acknowledged at EU level in the so-called "Cardiff Initiative" (European Council, Cardiff - June 1998, in response to a proposal submitted by the Swedish Prime Minister, G? Persson, in the Luxembourg Council in December 1997). This gave impetus to the implementation of the Community objective of sustainability.

The European Council (Heads of State and Government) not only called for Council bodies in specific sectors (energy, transport, agriculture, industry and the Internal Market) to brief subsequent European Councils, and in particular the forthcoming summits in Cologne (May 1999) and Helsinki (December 1999) on progress with integrating environmental issues into the relevant policies and programmes, but also for systems to be set up to monitor progress based on the use of indicators and the possible setting up of corresponding targets.

3. Two Main Challenges

This has created two main challenges for the environmental reporting system and for the Agency, as mandated to produce information to support effectively and efficiently an improvement of the situation:

The first implies to devote significant efforts to prospective analysis, evaluating trends and future scenarios in particular in relation to the economy and to economic sectors, and their environmental impacts, beyond the classical assessment of the state of the environment.

And the second means to provide more operational information bench-marking continuously the environmental situation, progress and prospect by means of indicators, and covering also the sustainability of economic sectors; a real accounting system.

And in 1999 the Agency will come with the two reports mentioned earlier responding to the challenge.

The Agency is finalising the new report "Environment in the European Union at the Turn of the Century" for publication in June 1999 describing the current situation and trends for the future. This will, for the first time, analyse the likely scenario in 2010 (and in some cases in 2020) with a view to anticipating and preventing certain developments. It will doubtless highlight the significant gap between aspirations for the real improvement in environmental quality and greater sustainability and the true situation, as it is likely to develop.?? Solely by way of example, I can cite some of the changes forecast with regard to the so-called baseline (Business as Usual) scenario for 2010) as compared with 1995:

* Energy: a 20% increase in total consumption - an increase below GNP but still significant; however, the demand for fuels for the transport sector will rise by 37%;

* Transport: a 30% increase in passenger traffic (passenger-Km) and a 50% rise in freight transport (tonnes-Km), principally by road and air;

* Tourism: a 50% increase in the number of visitors to European countries over the same period.

These increases are not sustainable given their direct contribution to environmental pressures (there is no increase in the more sustainable parts of these sectors, such as renewable energy sources and rail transport) and the use of non-renewable resources. In particular, (and these results may be optimistic since the baseline scenario presumes that the programmes and policies adopted up to the end of 1997 are successfully implemented) they will make it difficult to achieve the basic objectives, such as the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 8% by 2010 as compared with 1990 levels; it is anticipated that such emissions will increase by 6%, and in particular that CO2 emissions will rise by 8%. The main driving force for increasing CO2 emissions comes from the transport sector - CO2 transport emissions are projected to increase about 40% by 2010, while decline or maintenance of the current emissions levels are expected in other sectors.

In the light of this, without improvements to the current scenario, progress with regard to climate change – a priority which must be embraced – will prove difficult to achieve and improvements in air quality (noise pollution may also increase) and acid rain will be inadequate. The common challenge continues to be that of achieving a reduction in and more efficient use of fossil fuels and more rational use of transport, in particular road traffic given its negative impact on the economy (externalities of around 4% of Community GNP) and on the sustainability of other economic sectors, due to its low cost. Curiously the first two industrial revolutions were based on immoderate use of fossil fuels (first coal and then petroleum), whilst the so-called third (according to the Club of Rome) industrial revolution (or the first of its kind at global level) or "ecological modernisation" – as Chancellor Schr? would put it - will be based on a reduction in the use of fossil fuels in general.

Without entering into the question of changes in other priority areas - such as chemical substances, waste, nature and biodiversity, and water resources - or analysing the likely changes forecast in environmental quality, the sustainability of sectoral economic development and the use of natural resources, I should like to close by raising what I, personally, believe to be an issue of some concern, in the light of the scenario for 2010 set out in the Agency’s report: the issue of damage to and loss of use of land, which is, in my view, of considerable interest to this Forum. We shall turn later to the specific question of urban environment.

In summary, most of the major challenges will continue over the next decade, namely significant societal developments (in GDP, population, consumption) and, despite some notable exceptions, a general failure to de-link these from environmental pressures; increasing environmental burdens from the growth of road and air transport, and general urbanisation and "suburbanisation"; degradation of the rural environment; and increasingly significant risks to the valuable natural and biodiversity assets of Central and Eastern European countries, as well to those remaining in Southern and Mediterranean countries and in Northern and Western Europe.

But also we see some still small but fast-growing positive signals that should be known about more widely, disseminated and encouraged: growth in wind energy; cycling taking higher percentages of some cities’ traffic; pesticide-free areas or municipalities being declared in many countries; a significant growth in organic agriculture; improving energy efficiency in many countries; some EU countries establishing indicators and even quantitative targets to master unsustainable development; and many municipalities and companies embracing sustainability as a feasible and profitable process developing their own local Agenda 21 programmes at local and business level.

Concerning Accession Countries and the transition to EU membership, there is a danger that their environment will suffer if they follow the same development path of the EU15. It is perhaps more realistic and useful to consider that both the EU15 and the Accession Countries are in transition - transition to more sustainable development. Both have some way to go, but, with different starting points, their transition paths will be different. The EEA has undertaken some so-called "What if?…" studies that explore possible developments in the ACs, under different hypotheses. Some highlights of the results of these studies (which will become available during the next couple of months) are:

  • Currently, the transportation systems have less adverse implications for the environment than those in the EU. The rail network in most Accession Countries is well developed, although modernisation is required. At the same time, the road infrastructure and private transportation is less developed. This situation provides the basis for developing an efficient transportation system which is relatively harmless from an environmental perspective.
  • Recent increasing yields and production occurred in agriculture, accompanied by lower use of pesticides and fertiliser. But the potential for increasing the use of fertilisers and the spread of manure represents an important threat to water quality. The land tenure changes already instituted in Accession Countries have significant implications for land use and increased agricultural output. Nevertheless, the opportunity exists to protect ecosystem assets through agricultural-environment integration under the proposed reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy. This could have major benefits for rural economies through the enhancement of low-impact agriculture and development of eco-tourism, while at the same time maintaining biodiversity.
  • Energy intensity, especially in industry, could improve by 35% by 2010. The energy restructuring process could result in significant declines of sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide emissions at relatively low cost. For example improvements in energy efficiency alone (all sectors), could lead to a decrease of CO2 emissions by about 13% between 1990 and 2010 for the ACs, - even assuming a considerable (and likely) growth in household, services and passenger transport energy consumption. With lower depositions, ecosystems adversely affected by acidification would probably be reduced from 44% in 1990 to 6% in 2010; ecosystems in EU will also benefit from reduced emissions in Accession Countries.
  • The implementation of the urban waste water treatment Directive in the Accession Countries could result in a two-thirds reduction in organic matter load and 40-50% of nutrients input. This would potentially reduce the nitrate and phosphorus loading to both the Baltic and Black Seas by around 15-30%. However, the overall water quality may not improve significantly if other sources of nutrients (agriculture) will increase. Furthermore the costs estimated for building up the necessary sewage treatment plants (excluding connections) could be of the order of 9 billion euros. Moreover, such measures are expected to originate a very serious sludge problem, due to a drastic increase of the amounts produced

In this context, the "integration issue" (e.g.: in transport, energy and agriculture) should be given larger consideration when analysing the accession process . This would directly contribute to a more sustainable enlargement process, something that would certainly go beyond specific environmental legislation. And taking sustainable development as the reference, in particular for the sectors mentioned above, a broader compliance can be achieved.

4. Environmental Signals

And the Agency will produce by the end of 1999 its first "EU’s Environment Signals 99" that will also provide for positive signs by proper disaggregation, spatially or by sectors

In producing these comprehensive state of the environment reports the Agency has been building up a seamless monitoring and reporting system, bringing locally and nationally collected data forward into policy relevant conclusions on the European level. However, what has been missing until now is a more structured reference model for providing a clear and succinct picture of progress towards targets for the main environmental issues. What has been missing is an instrument to make the actors in the socio-economic sphere accountable for the influence of their decisions on the environment. But what also has been missing is an instrument to show progress in environmentally benign activities to encourage and reward decision makers to take a more sustainable path.

The Agency will now move a step further forward in reporting on the environment by implementing its new obligation, following out of the review of the 1990 Council regulation: to issue regular reports based on indicators. By the end of 1999 the first report will be finished, and we will probably call it "Environmental Signals" to make clear that the report will give a number of signals. The most important part of the report will consist of a set of linked indicators answering the most pressing public and policy questions in key areas: Are we reaching the Kyoto targets for the emission of greenhouse gases? And which sectors are responsible for the emissions? How is the total amount of waste developing? And what do we do with it? Where are the most endangered areas with water shortages? And has water metering and water pricing been effective? In around ten short chapters a number of topics will be highlighted with the use of indicators. Some of the indicators will give positive signs - the emissions of sulphur dioxide have gone down further; others a negative sign - industry as a whole has barely become more energy efficient. The report will explain the causes of the development and analyse the options for further action.

But as environmental monitoring, by its nature, has focused on the "bads", many indicators will be on pollutants, dangerous substances, hazardous waste, and so forth. The environment, however, is so much more, and many of the trends cannot be found in the statistics yet. The word "positive indicators" has been coined for those indicators that aim to strike a balance with all the information on pollution and disturbance. Positive indicators will tell us about the development of the responses to environmental threats: how much energy has been saved by new household appliances, how many customers have bought ecological food, how many car workshops work in environmentally sound ways? By including also a well chosen selection of "positive indicators" in the report the EEA aims to give a new dimension to reporting from Driving Forces, over Pressures and the State of the environment and its Impacts, to the multitude of Responses. It is our responses that finally make the difference for the environment

Within the set of indicators used, a subset of so called "headline indicators" will be identified. These are called as such, because of the expectation that they will reach the headlines of leading newspapers. The "headline indicators" form, so to speak, a summary of the findings in the various chapters. The choice of headline indicators will be coordinated with countries developing similar indicator mechanisms. Headline indicators should be directly comparable with main economic and social indicators to provide proper information on trade-offs and win-win situations between major policy aims.

5. Opportunities in 1999

This year, 1999 will offer significant opportunities for progressing in the use of environmental information for policy framing:


  • Two major state of the environment reports of the EEA will be available: one on the pan-European Scale and one focusing on the EU15, diagnosing the situation and giving a baseline scenario for the period up to 2010. An overall indicator-based trends report will provide the latest information and will form the framework for a series of sector based reports focusing on progress in the integration of environmental considerations into sectoral policies; these latter being practical outcomes of the Cardiff and Vienna Council decisions last year. The EEA co-operates, with the Commission services, in defining the related sectoral indicators and may be charged with providing the basic sectoral assessments.


  • The European Commission will present to the Council and to the Parliament the so called Global Assessment required by the European Parliament, evaluating the progress and the implementation of the 5th Environmental Action Programme providing the basis for the medium-term environmental policy (for the 21st Century). The Agency’s report is a main input to this assessment.


  • And the foreseen debate and conclusions of the Helsinki European Council in December 1999 will be a very significant occasion where reports on economic sectors, the Global Assessment of the 5th Action Programme and an EC co-ordinated report on indicators (beyond the Agency’ Environment Signals 99 report), will be linked. This will be a unique opportunity for defining guiding principles for a sustainability strategy and its implementation by the economic Councils (Transport. Energy, Agriculture, ….) and the Environment Council, always submitted to the accountability (bench-marking) provided by the indicators.

The initiation of a new political cycle during 1999, with a new Commission and Parliament, will provide the opportunity to take stock of the reports and assessments mentioned and complete the Institutional opportunities opened up by the Cardiff European Council and the expected progress in Helsinki. To that we must add the specific challenges created by Agenda 2000 and in particular the EU enlargement. These are major tests for improving of the environment and to progress towards sustainability.


6. Conclusion

The situation of EU’s Environment and the progress towards sustainability is not satisfactory and it can even deteriorate before we get the conditions right for improvement.

There are many practical, real signs that, while not yet quantitatively significant, show that improvement (and inflexion) is possible, feasible and rewarding. Many challenges can be turned into opportunities even (or especially) for business and industry collectively.

And we have the objective conditions for this change:


  • Sufficient diagnosis of the situation and trends under "the business as usual" scenario for proper decision and action;
  • Propitiatory legal, institutional and political framework provided by the Amsterdam Treaty and the Cardiff initiative, and for a new institutional cycle;
  • A growing awareness of the EU citizens, that has shown the readiness also as a consumer to participate actively in those required radical changes in consumption patterns if the opportunities and alternatives are provided and if properly informed ("informed choice").



The Agency, being up to its mandate of providing the evidence of the situation and trends and the effects for different alternative scenarios, should continue to be instrumental in this process. It will require, as shown by the first four years, an evolving role; it will require continue being in a pioneering phase for some time to come since the challenges posed by this new frontier of environment and sustainability will be a challenge for many years yet.



Executive Director

European Environment Agency


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