SOER 2020 - At a glance

Article Published 04 Dec 2019 Last modified 15 Mar 2023
5 min read
The European environment — state and outlook 2020 (SOER 2020) comes at a crucial time of urgent sustainability challenges that require urgent systemic solutions. The overarching challenge of this century is how we achieve development across the world that balances societal, economic and environmental considerations. Sustainability needs to become the guiding principle for ambitious and coherent policies and actions across society.


In 2020, Europe faces environmental challenges of unprecedented scale and urgency.

Although EU environment and climate policies have delivered substantial benefits over recent decades, Europe faces persistent problems in areas such as biodiversity loss, resource use, climate change impacts and environmental risks to health and well-being. Global megatrends such as demographic change are intensifying many environmental challenges, while rapid technological change brings new risks and uncertainties.


The EU has committed to a range of long-term sustainability goals with the overall aim of ‘living well, within the limits of our planet’. Achieving these goals will not be possible without a rapid and fundamental shift in the character and ambition of Europe’s responses.

Europe needs to find ways to transform the key societal systems that drive environment and climate pressures and health impacts — rethinking not just technologies and production processes but also consumption patterns and ways of living. This will require immediate and concerted action, engaging diverse policy areas and actors across society in enabling systemic change.


Europe stands at a critical juncture in 2020. Its leaders have opportunities to shape future developments that will not be available to their successors. The coming decade will therefore be of decisive importance in determining Europe’s opportunities in the 21st century.


SOER 2020 key messages

Global context

The environmental and sustainability challenges that Europe faces today are rooted in global developments stretching back over decades. During this period, the ‘Great Acceleration’ of social and economic activity has transformed humanity’s relationship with the environment.

The great acceleration has undoubtedly delivered major benefits, alleviating suffering and enhancing prosperity in many parts of the world. Yet the same developments have also caused widespread damage to ecosystems.

 Source: SOER 2020 p. 36-37

The Earth is experiencing exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity, and more species are threatened with extinction now than at any point in human history. Many of the changes in the global climate system observed since the 1950s are similarly unprecedented over decades to millennia.

 As a pioneer of industrialisation, Europe has played a pivotal role in shaping these global changes. Today, it continues to consume more resources and contribute more to environmental degradation than many other world regions. To meet these high consumption levels, Europe depends on resources extracted or used in other parts of the world, such as water, land, biomass and other materials.

 Correlation between ecological footprint and human development index 

Source: SOER 2020 p.51

Collectively, these realities add up to a profound challenge for Europe and other world regions. The current trajectories of social and economic development are destroying the ecosystems that ultimately sustain humanity. Shifting onto sustainable pathways will require rapid and large-scale reductions in environmental pressures, going far beyond the current reductions.

State and outlook of Europe’s environment in 2020

Viewed against Europe’s long-term vision and complementary policy targets, it is clear that Europe is not making enough progress in addressing environmental challenges.Overall trends and outlook

The messages from the SOER 2020 assessment of recent trends and outlooks is clear: policies have been more effective in reducing environmental pressures than in protecting biodiversity and ecosystems, and human health and well-being.


Trends and outlook table

SourceSOER 2020 p. 12

Despite the successes of European environmental governance, persistent problems remain and the outlook for Europe’s environment in the coming decades is discouraging.

Systemic challenges

The persistence of major environmental challenges can be explained by a variety of related factors. First, environmental pressures remain substantial despite progress in reducing them.  This implies a need to go beyond incremental efficiency improvements and to strengthen the implementation of environmental policies to achieve their full benefits. The complexity of environmental systems can also mean that there is a considerable time lag between reducing pressures and seeing improvements in natural capital, and human health and well-being.

Perhaps the most important factor underlying Europe’s persistent environmental and sustainability challenges is that they are inextricably linked to economic activities and lifestyles, in particular the societal systems that provide Europeans with necessities such as food, energy and mobility.

Three key systems in a nutshell

Food system

Energy system

Mobility system

As a result, society’s resource use and pollution are tied in complex ways to jobs and earnings across the value chain; to major investments in infrastructure, machinery, skills and knowledge; to behaviours and ways of living; and to public policies and institutions.

The many interlinkages within and between societal systems mean that there are often major barriers to achieving the rapid and far-reaching change that is needed to achieve Europe’s long-term sustainability objectives.

"The focus now must be on scaling up, speeding up, streamlining and implementing the many solutions and innovations - both technological and social - which arleady exist, while stimulating additional research and development, catalysing behavioural shifts and, vitally, listening to and engaging with citizens."

Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the EEA

Where does Europe go from here?

Achieving the EU’s 2050 sustainability vision is still possible, but it will require a shift in the character and ambition of actions. That means both strengthening established policy tools and building on them with innovative new approaches to governance.

  1. Strengthening policy implementation, integration and coherence: Full implementation of existing policies would take Europe a long way to achieving its environmental goals up to 2030.
  2. Developing more systemic, long-term policy frameworks and binding targets: The coverage of long-term policy frameworks needs to be extended to other important systems and issues, starting with the food system, chemicals and land use.
  3. Leading international action towards sustainability: Europe cannot achieve its sustainability goals in isolation. The EU has significant diplomatic and economic influence, which it can use to promote the adoption of ambitious agreements in areas such as biodiversity and resource use.
  4. Fostering innovation throughout society: Changing trajectory will depend critically on the emergence and spread of diverse forms of innovation that can trigger new ways of thinking and living.
  5. Scaling up investments and reorienting finance: Although achieving sustainability transitions will require major investments, Europeans stand to gain hugely – both because of avoided harms to nature and society, and because of the economic and social opportunities that they create.
  6. Managing risks and ensuring a socially fair transition: Successful governance of sustainability transitions will require that societies acknowledge potential risks, opportunities and trade-offs, and devise ways to navigate them. Policies have an essential role in achieving ‘just transitions’.
  7. Linking knowledge with action: Achieving sustainability transitions will require diverse new knowledge, drawing on multiple disciplines and types of knowledge production. This includes evidence about the systems driving environmental pressures, pathways to sustainability, promising initiatives and barriers to change.



Achieving the goals of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and the Paris Agreement will require urgent action in each of these areas during the next 10 years.

To be clear, Europe will not achieve its sustainability vision of ‘living well, within the limits of our planet’ simply by promoting economic growth and seeking to manage harmful side-effects with environmental and social policy tools. Instead, sustainability needs to become the guiding principle for ambitious and coherent policies and actions across society.

In 2020, Europe has a unique window of opportunity to lead the global response to sustainability challenges. Now is the time to act.

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