Visions of the future for Europe - Prelude - five scenarios for 2030

Speech Published 29 Nov 2006 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Prof. Jacqueline McGlade's speech at Friends of Europe, Brussels, 29 November 2006
Professor Jacqueline McGlade
Speech: Visions of the Future for Europe
PRELUDE to change- Five Scenarios for 2030
Brussels, 29 November 2006

Mr. Chairman, members of the panel, ladies and gentlemen,

on behalf of the European Environment Agency, let me extend a warm welcome to you all and special thanks to Friends of Europe for co-hosting this event and setting up the possibility to meet in this beautiful building.

The past, it is said, is another country. Certainly they did things differently in the 1970s.

And certainly they will do things differently in the 2030s.

We cannot anticipate the future. But we have a strong commitment towards it. The renewed European Sustainable Development Strategy stipulates:

“that the needs of the present generation should be met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

What does this mean for policy-making today? Let me – at the outset - stress three messages:

First: We need a long view. Decision-making in this city – as you know very well – tends to operate within the confines of a five year cycle at best. Five years passes rather quickly. If we want to seriously address Europe’s sustainability we have to look beyond two legislative cycles or more.

Second: A long view requires a broad mind. The key trends facing Europe can change significantly. We need better integrated, long-term assessments to effectively support strategic decision-making. Our current governance structures are not well-suited to this kind of long-term vision. We need to improve our Impact Assessment procedures.

Third: The European Environment Agency can help because we play a leading role in Integrated Assessment in Europe. The PRELUDE project was our attempt to go far beyond the perspective of two legislative cycles and explore what Europe’s society and environment might look like in 2035. Today, I would like to share some of the lessons we learnt.

We need a long view! In day-to-day policy making, we are more and more confronted with long-term problems that are highly uncertain. They cannot be solved within the short term perspective of one legislative cycle:

We have to address climate change - how should we mitigate its consequences whilst considering the cost of adaptation?

The importance of agriculture as the backbone of rural economy is declining. More and more, we are dependent on external supply. What kind of agriculture do we want to have in the future?

Can we reconcile competitiveness with non-trade concerns?

What will be the effects of an aging rural population in Europe? Will we be able to keep the countryside alive?

Will we be able to halt biodiversity decline as it has been agreed already by 2010?

Climate change, globalisation and demographic change are just a few factors that will profoundly change the context of policy-making in the future. We need to take the possibility of different outcomes into account, when making strategic decisions. Our policies need to be robust over the long term if we don´t want to undermine our commitment towards future generations and the conditions of life on this planet.

Over the last years, we have made much progress into 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. But how often do we put all the facts together and try to make sense of the whole story?

Most long-term evaluation studies focus only on one sector or one dimension of a problem. Moreover, most are still built around the extrapolation of current trends to a distant future – the so called  ‘business-as-usual’ or ‘baseline scenario’ against which alternative policies are tested.

This is a reasonable approach if we want to study short-to medium-term future trends. But trends are not our destiny. In the long run, discontinuities or surprises may become the norm, rather than the exception.

Furthermore, the future might bring major upheavals such as September 11th, the fall of the Berlin Wall or the abrupt increase in oil prices. With hindsight we realise that such disruptive events had vast implications for society, and indirectly the environment.

Business-as-usual, or ‘trend’ scenarios struggle to represent the complexity of future dynamics and its potential for disruptive change. We need broader and more integrated long-term assessments for this task. In an increasingly changing and uncertain world, we need tools to address discontinuity and map out uncertainties against a set of alternative futures. Exploratory long-term scenarios are a useful tool for this.

Scenario development of this kind is increasingly employed by more and more companies, governments and international organizations for exactly this purpose. Here are just a few prominent examples. At the Agency, we believe that exploratory scenario development should be used more prominently to complement existing assessment tools at the European level.

Our PRELUDE project that I would like to introduce to you now is a good case study of this approach to policy support. PRELUDE stands for Prospective Environmental analysis of Land Use Development in Europe.

Land use change is a key and pressing challenge to sustainable development. Rich and varied landscapes, often shaped by traditional farming practices, are part of our common European cultural and natural heritage. As an attraction for tourists, they also play an important economic role. Many policies are geared towards their conservation.

Land use change can have serious environmental impacts.  Will we be able to maintain rural communities and the traditional landscapes of Europe?

The Agency engaged 30 stakeholders and experts from all over Europe to examine this question. They created five different yet plausible scenarios about how society might change. The implications of the scenarios in terms of land use and the environment were quantified using state-of-the-art land use simulation models.

The narratives and land use maps literally provide a PRELUDE to the future. In the project brochure that you have received you will find a tool which contains all findings of the project. In order to give you a short taster to what is a complex study, we purposely developed small teasers for each scenario.

Let me give you a flavour of a Europe of Contrast first:

Great Escape voiceover

You work hard all day.

Then you battle your way home through all the riff-raff and squalor of the city.

Don’t you deserve something better? Say, a spacious, secure house in this beautiful, tranquil community?

Here in Parkville Carpathia properties start from only 2 million GCUs.

Can you afford not to move?

This scenario is characterised by increased competition pressure, passive government and decreasing social solidarity. Rich gated communities in the countryside evolve in sharp contrast to urban ghettos. Agricultural markets are liberalised, and only large farms with intensive management survive.

A Europe of Innovation is more bottom-up:

Lettuce Surprise U voiceover

With New Liquid Bungi I can grow all the fruit and vegetables I need, right here in my tiny city garden!

I can grow succulent cucumbers and courgettes! Juicy raspberries and plums!  Mouthwatering tomatoes and beans!

Isn’t it about time you got digging, with New Liquid Bungi?

The essential drivers in this scenario are growing environmental awareness, technological breakthrough innovation and political decentralisation. Agriculture is revolutionised, facilitated by an open source mentality and propagation of knowledge. Production becomes small-scale and less intensive.

Alternatively, we might experience a Europe of Cohesion:

Big Crisis voiceover

If storms, floods and droughts become more common in Europe, how will we respond? Will we go on the same way we always have?

Or will we make radical changes about how – and where – we live?

In this scenario a series of environmental disasters highlights Europe’s vulnerability. There is widespread concern and public support for a strong policy intervention. A new set of coherent policies for sustainable and regionally balanced development is set up at the European level.

There is more to discover about PRELUDE. These teasers are part of a powerful visual communication tool. The Agency has won several major international prices for PRELUDE, but the objective is not communication in itself.

Behind the fun is hard science. 20 main driving forces were identified, qualitatively valued and transformed into quantitative input for state-of the art simulation models. For an easy comparison they have been clustered into five main categories. The five archetype scenarios thus reflect a wide array of basic economic, social, technological, political and environmental developments, including emerging trends and disruptive events when considered relevant.

The obvious question you will be asking yourselves is - how can we put the results of such studies into practice? On the one hand, we can compare the general environmental implications of land use change in the different scenarios. As we explore the scenarios, you will see the corresponding landscape patterns change, particularly in Eastern and Southern Europe. Focus for example on these areas where the landscape changes are dramatic in response to the scenarios.

Regions like these often have relatively extensive agriculture, associated with high nature and landscape value. This makes them vulnerable to processes like urbanisation, intensification and land abandonment, which vary markedly across the scenarios.

On the other hand, the scenarios allow us to discuss specific threats and opportunities. The abandonment of extensive agriculture, for example, leads to a decline of many valuable habitats and species. Rural development policies are meant to contribute to minimising this loss.

However, even in our most positive scenarios the agricultural area decreases and traditional landscapes disappear. Habitats and species depending on extensive traditional agriculture decline considerably in most scenarios. Given the magnitude of economic and social change in rural regions, the conservation of all areas of interest seems to be unlikely. To use resources more effectively, it may be wise to set stricter spatial priorities for rural development.

But the threat of land abandonment also means decreasing impacts from agriculture and opportunities for large-scale nature development. If land use issues are solved in an integrated manner there appear to be considerable opportunities for an increase in biodiversity. A retreat of agriculture and targeted nature development seems promising in areas where change cannot be prevented in the long run.

Whether we should conserve, let change happen or adapt to it cannot be decided on the basis of our scenario findings solely. Long-term spatial assessments like PRELUDE are not supposed to provide blueprints for the transition towards sustainable development. But they do offer context and a backdrop against which the debate about the future of land use, agriculture, rural communities and the natural environment can take place

Let us come back to the more general discussion on scenarios and sustainable development. A framework like the European Sustainable Development Strategy is not an alternative to our day-to-day decision-making procedures. It creates comprehension and a stronger basis from which to promote objectives and policies to counterparts in economics, trade and other domains, that will resonate with their own interests.

PRELUDE illustrates that such a long view requires a broad mind. In order to really improve synergies and reduce trade-offs, we need to improve Impact Assessment itself, by complementing a “business as usual”-starting point with an integrated approach that thinks through real alternatives.

Therefore, we need tools that map discontinuities against a set of alternative futures, including shocks and surprises, and integrate different political perspectives. The exploratory scenarios of PRELUDE can contribute meaningfully to a well-structured framework for strategic policy-making that is broad enough in time and space.

Exploratory scenario development is, however, not a silver bullet. As every approach, it has its strength and weaknesses. It should be used to complement - and not as an alternative to - existing assessment tools. Scenarios like PRELUDE are first and foremost a discussion support tool. In a time of uncertainty, they create an intelligent framework to critically review - or “wind-tunnel” - important policy decisions. In the end, we all want better decisions.

The EEA is a leading player in Integrated Assessment. We are willing to contribute our expertise in exploratory scenario development to improving Impact Assessment at the European level.

I am looking forward to the comments from the panel and to an interesting and fruitful discussion about the potential contribution of long-term scenarios to the policy-making process.

I thank you for your attention.


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