Progress towards sustainability

The European Union is making progress in reducing certain pressures on the environment, though this is not enough to improve the general quality of the environment and even less to progress towards sustainability. Without accelerated policies, pressures on the environment will continue to exceed human health standards and the often limited carrying capacity of the environment. Actions taken to date will not lead to full integration of environmental considerations into economic sectors or to sustainable development.

These are the main conclusions of an assessment of the trends, state and outlook of the environment in the European Union (EU) by the European Environment Agency (EEA), as requested by the European Commission. This report forms part of the review process of the 1992 EC Programme of Policy and Action in Relation to the Environment and Sustainable Development "Towards Sustainability", the so-called Fifth Environmental Action Programme (5EAP).

The 5EAP has marked an important change of direction for the EU's environmental policy. Its key principles are: to integrate environmental considerations into the various target economic sectors, to achieve policy objectives (including timing), to broaden the range of instruments and to establish shared responsibility. At more or less the same time as the 5EAP, new concepts like 'sustainable development' and 'environmental space' were developed, which also refer to continuity of ecosystems, public health and economic functions required for the development of future generations.


Box 2: Enlargement of the European Union

Since the publication of the 5EAP and the accompanying state-of-the-environment report, the European Union has enlarged with the accession of Austria, Finland and Sweden from 1995. This implies that new issues will arise, or that existing issues will be altered. For example: the total forest area in the EU has drastically increased; in the Alpine region, pressures from road transport and tourism with their associated risks to human health and the local ecology have become truly EU issues. Many of the new issues connected to the new Member States are a consequence of the sensitivity of the environment in these countries (eg, to water and soil acidification). Also, the extension of the EU to include Finland and Sweden means, in particular, that the productive but sensitive (and heavily polluted) Baltic Sea has become part of the EU.

Although this report focuses primarily on the original EU12 (by evaluating and updating the assessment of 1992), the conclusions are also applicable to the EU15.

Environmental trends

Some of the pressures on the environment have shown a decreasing trend over the past years (mainly due to pre-5EAP policies). Successes can be noted in the reduction of ozone depleting substances, emissions of heavy metals and sulphur dioxide (SO2) and improvement of surface water quality. Full implementation of environmental policies is likely to lead to further reductions in environmental pressures despite further growth in production and consumption. However, the following issues require further attention at the European level: climate change and acidification, waste management, (urban) air quality, groundwater quality, habitat destruction and fragmentation. Another emerging issue, which has not been comprehensively tackled at the European level, is the degradation of soil quality, which is an important natural resource. 

The time factor obviously plays a part in the development of environmental problems and of pro-active policy making. It takes time before environmental problems become manifest due to chemical and biological time-lags. Once they are manifest, most problems show an irreversible character or, when actions are undertaken, a long recovery time. Furthermore, there are the societal time-lags inherent in, for example: raising public awareness, developing policy actions and fully implementing these measures (taking into account the fleet turnover of capital goods). A diagnosis of only the current state of the environment is therefore inadequate. Early warning information systems and the monitoring of environmental progress and environmental outlooks are crucial for supporting the policy process and for providing sufficient feedback for policy-makers and society on the environmental effects of their present and intended actions.

Societal trends and target sectors

Successes to date have mainly been achieved in the industry sector. Point sources of pollution have been well targeted by regulations. Diffuse sources, such as products, consumers and mobile sources have been targeted far less effectively.

A review of the current state of action and of the information gathered so far leads to the conclusion that at this stage, it is difficult to asses the effectiveness of 5EAP policies in changing future trends. Most production and consumption trends remain unchanged compared with those from three years ago when the 5EAP was published.

Current policies focus on the effectiveness of measures ('how can the target be reached'), while at present, the efficiency issue (ie, maximising the environmental benefits and minimising the economic costs) is hardly addressed. This issue should be one of the key areas for the future. Focusing on the efficiency of measures might be a driving instrument for further integration of environmental considerations into economic sectors. Moreover, in this decade the most cost-effective measures will probably have been exhausted. However, if, as expected, economic growth and the size of the population continue to increase, then in the future the measures necessary to maintain the emission levels that have been achieved, or to further reduce them to the ultimate target, will (without new technical breakthroughs) become more and more expensive and administratively and politically complicated.

Accelerated EU environmental policy needed for reaching targets

If the European Union wants to achieve its environmental targets (ie, to avoid adverse effects on human health and ecosystems), an accelerated environmental policy is needed. This is a major challenge to the European Union in the coming years, since most societal trends show that further pressures on the environment are likely to occur. Population and economic growth show upward trends, translating into more energy and material use, transport and tourism. If these trends cannot be combined with sufficient (and cost-effective) abatement measures, (further) de-coupling of economic growth from these trends is essential to secure sustainable development.


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