What does SOER 2010 tell us?

Accelerating global demand threatens the natural systems that sustain us

This is one of the key messages of The European environment — state and outlook 2010 (SOER 2010), the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) flagship assessment.

Overall, SOER 2010 confirms that environmental policy, and actions in related areas, in the European Union (EU) and neighbouring countries have delivered substantial environmental improvements. Yet major challenges remain. As we recognise ever more clearly, the natural capital in our ecosystems is essential for our health, our wellbeing and our prosperity. It delivers services that drive our economies and create the conditions for life itself — purifying water, pollinating crops, decomposing waste and regulating the climate, to name just a few.

SOER 2010 demonstrates that the longstanding demand for natural resources to feed, clothe, house and transport people is accelerating because of global pressures. Our natural capital is also subject to newer demands, such as for plant-based chemicals or for biomass to replace fossil fuels. Taken together, these mounting demands on natural capital point to greater threats to Europe’s economy and social cohesion.

SOER 2010 shows our increased understanding of the links between climate change, biodiversity, resource use and people’s health — and how these all point to growing pressures on land, rivers and seas. These complex interconnections — both within Europe and globally — increase environmental uncertainties and risks.

The challenges are considerable but there are opportunities for Europe to maintain its natural capital. Europe urgently needs to increase resource efficiency and improve implementation of the Lisbon Treaty’s principles for environmental protection. More should be done to value the environment in monetary terms and reflect such values in market prices, for example using environmental taxes. We should strengthen our understanding of the environment’s state and outlook. And we should engage different groups in building the knowledge base and in environmental policy processes generally. This is all part of a more fundamental transition beyond the low carbon economy to a genuinely green economy in Europe.

We need to step up our efforts in all areas

Examining each of the EU’s strategic environmental priority areas, the story is broadly the same. We are making progress but we will jeopardise the wellbeing of current and future generations if we don’t step up our efforts.

In the area of climate change, we have cut greenhouse gas emissions and we’re on track to meet our international commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. The EU is expected to reach its target of reducing emissions by 20 % by 2020 if existing legislation is implemented. We’re also expanding our use of renewable energy and we’re on course to meet our 2020 target of sourcing 20 % of final energy consumption from renewable sources.

Perhaps most fundamentally, however, international efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions are far from sufficient to keep the average increase in world temperatures below 2 °C. This is crucial because beyond two degrees uncertainty and risks escalate hugely with respect to the nature and scale of environmental change, and our ability to adapt.

In the area of nature and biodiversity, Europe has expanded its Natura 2000 network of protected areas to cover some 18 % of EU land. We are making progress in halting the loss of biodiversity; common bird species, for example, are no longer in decline. The quality of freshwaters has generally improved and air and water emissions legislation has reduced pressure on biodiversity.

But the EU will miss its 2010 target to halt biodiversity loss. The marine environment is heavily affected by pollution and overfishing. As a result of fishing pressures, 30 % of Europe’s fish stocks (for which information exists) are now fished beyond their safe biological limits and since 1985 there has been a general decline in fish catches. Terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems are still under pressure in many countries despite reduced pollution loads. Forests, which are crucial for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are heavily exploited. And intensified agriculture has had major consequences for biodiversity.

In the area of natural resources and waste, Europe’s waste management has shifted steadily from landfill to recycling and prevention. Nevertheless, half of the 3 billion tonnes of total waste generated in the EU-27 in 2006 was landfilled.

Resource use is increasing but at a lower rate than economic output. This partial decoupling is encouraging but Europe is still using ever more resources. In the EU-12, for example, resource use increased by 34 % from 2000 to 2007. What’s more, we consume more than we produce, with over 20 % of resources used in Europe now imported (notably fuels and mining products). As a result, European consumption leads to significant environmental impacts in exporting countries and regions. Meanwhile, water use is stable or decreasing across Europe but resources are overexploited in some countries and river basins (and risk becoming more so).

In the area of environment, health and quality of life, water and air pollution have declined. There have been notable successes in reducing levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) in ambient air, as well as marked reductions in nitrogen oxides (NOX). Lead concentrations have also declined considerably with the introduction of unleaded petrol.

But ambient air and water quality remains inadequate and health impacts are widespread. Too many urban dwellers are exposed to excessive pollution levels. Exposure to particulate matter (PM) and ozone (O3) are still major health concerns, linked to reduced life expectancy, acute and chronic respiratory and cardiovascular effects, impaired lung development in children, and reduced birth weight. Widespread exposure to multiple pollutants and chemicals, and concerns about long-term damage to human health, together imply the need for more large-scale pollution prevention programmes.

Europe’s environmental challenges are complex and can't be understood in isolation

We live in, and depend on, a highly interconnected world, comprising multiple related systems — environmental, social, economic and so on. This interconnectivity means that damaging one element may cause unexpected impacts elsewhere, harming an entire system or even triggering its collapse. For example, as temperature increases, so does the risk of passing ‘tipping points’ that could initiate large-scale changes, such as accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet followed by a sea level rise. The recent global financial crash and the aviation chaos caused by an Icelandic volcano also demonstrate how sudden breakdowns in one area can affect whole systems.

European policymakers aren’t only contending with complex systemic interactions within the continent. Global drivers of change are also unfolding that are expected to affect Europe’s environment in the future — many of them beyond Europe’s control. For example, the world population is forecast to exceed nine billion by 2050 with ever greater numbers expecting to move from poverty and aspiring to higher consumption.

Such trends have huge implications for global demand for resources. Cities are spreading. Consumption is spiralling. The world expects continued economic growth. Newly emerging economies will grow in economic significance. Non-state actors could become more relevant in global political processes. And accelerating technological change is anticipated. The ‘race into the unknown’ offers opportunities but will also bring new risks.

Inaction would have serious consequences but there are opportunities to preserve natural capital and ecosystem services

The world’s stocks of natural resources are already decreasing. Over the coming years, rising demand and falling supply could intensify global competition for resources. Ultimately, this will further increase pressure on ecosystems globally, testing their capacity to deliver sustained flows of food, energy and water.

While SOER 2010 does not present any warnings of imminent environmental collapse, it does note that some thresholds are being crossed. Negative environmental trends could ultimately produce dramatic and irreversible damage to some of the ecosystems and services that we take for granted.

Now is the time to turn many well sign-posted ‘early warnings’ into action. European environmental policies have had many economic and social benefits in numerous countries: for example, human health has improved and a quarter of all European jobs are estimated to be linked to the environment. Full implementation of environmental policies in Europe therefore remains paramount, as many targets have yet to be met.

By showing the many links between different challenges, environmental and otherwise, SOER 2010 encourages us to better integrate different policy areas in order to maximise the benefits from our investments. For example, some measures to address air pollution also help combat climate change, whereas others will actually exacerbate it. The focus clearly needs to be on maximising win-wins and avoiding policies with negative side effects.

We also need to get better at balancing the need to preserve natural capital and using it to fuel the economy. Increasing the efficiency of our resource use is a key ‘integrating response’ here. Recognising that our consumption levels are currently unsustainable, we basically need to do more with less.  Encouragingly, this is an area where the interests of the environmental and commercial sectors are potentially aligned: businesses prosper or falter based on their ability to extract maximum value from inputs, just as preserving the natural world and human wellbeing depends on us doing more with a limited flow of resources.


Related content: What is SOER 2010?


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