Global megatrends and planetary boundaries

Page Last modified 21 Sep 2018
5 min read
Europe is part of a highly globalised world that is characterised by a variety of large-scale, high impact and often interdependent changes, known as global megatrends. For example, while unprecedented economic and population growth over the last 100-150 years has resulted in excessive burdens on the global ecosystem, resource demands and associated pressures on ecosystems are set to escalate further in the coming decades.

This raises questions about the limits of tolerable environmental pressure on the Earth's life support systems, sometimes referred to as planetary boundaries. Recognising that the total global environmental burden is indeed rapidly moving beyond globally sustainable limits, it is important to better understand how Europe's future ecological and societal resilience might by affected by current and future global trends, and conversely, how European systems of production and consumption are contributing to environmental pressures in other parts of the world.

Introduction

Many global trends have significant consequences for Europe. For example, demographic, economic or geopolitical developments elsewhere can influence the availability and price of natural resources and energy in Europe. Increasing environmental pollution in other world regions likewise contributes to direct environmental and human harm in Europe. For instance, although European emissions of ozone precursor gases have declined significantly in recent decades, measured concentrations of ground-level ozone have not fallen at most ground monitoring stations. There is evidence that this is partly due to the long-range transport of precursor gases from other parts of the world.

Impacts of global megatrends on European resource systems

Global megatrends

Source: EEA, 2015

Europe also contributes to environmental pressures in other parts of the world. Greenhouse gas emissions in Europe contribute to climate change impacts elsewhere and potentially far into the future. Globalised supply chains mean that European consumption contributes to pressures on ecosystems and communities in other areas of the globe, for example through threats to global freshwater quality and quantity, and the degradation of habitats and landscapes. For some environmental pressures, there are clear indications that improvements on European territory have been offset by an increasing European footprint in other parts of the world. For example, while the total amount of agricultural land within the EU has decreased slightly over the past decade, the EU has a disproportionally high global cropland footprint consuming, directly or indirectly, more than twice the amount of agricultural land it uses internally.

Planetary boundaries - a safe operating space for humanity

planetary_boundaries

Source: Steffen et al. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet, science, 16 January 2015. Credit: F. Pharand-Deschênes/Globaïa

Human pressures on the Earth system have reached a scale where irreversible or even catastrophic global changes can no longer be excluded. Such irreversible changes could make the Earth a much less hospitable place. The concept of planetary boundaries indicate nine critical processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system (Rockström et al. 2009; Steffen et al. 2015). Planetary boundaries highlight the idea that sustainable development can only be achieved within a safe operating space for humanity identified by the biophysical realities of critical natural thresholds. However, bridging from concept to policy application and integration involves the challenge of making the global concept relevant and tangible at the continental, national or even local scales. This includes downscaling the concept of planetary boundaries to the European scale and measuring Europe's performance against these downscaled limits, including Europe's external footprint of production and consumption

EU policies on the topic

Over recent years, the EU has developed and adopted a range of long-term strategies with a societal transition perspective towards 2050. Most prominently, the Seventh Environmental Action Programme (7th EAP) — the strategic guiding document for all environmental policymaking in the current policy cycle until 2020 — sets out the vision of 'Living well, within the limits of our planet', which directly relates to the idea of planetary boundaries. The 7th EAP formulates an engaging but ambitious vision about Europe as a low carbon society with a green and circular economy, and resilient ecosystems as the basis for European well-being by 2050. This vision is underpinned with multiple long-term goals, such as the Roadmap for moving to a competitive low-carbon economy (EC, 2011a), the long-term 2050 target for biodiversity and ecosystem services (natural capital protected, valued and appropriately restored) as part of the biodiversity strategy (EC, 2011b), or the goal of zero land take by 2050 as part of the Roadmap to a resource efficient Europe (EC, 2011c).  

The successful delivery of these long-term visions and goals requires new and improved knowledge on the rapidly changing global context. This relates to both how Europe's environment and societies might be impacted by global megatrends and, conversely, how Europe's systems of production and consumption contribute to shaping global environmental pressures on a planet Earth with biophysical boundaries and limits.

EEA activities

The EEA has published assessments of global megatrends considered to be of key importance for Europe's long-term environmental outlook as part of its latest two 'The European environment — state and outlook' (SOER) reports in 2010 and 2015. The latter publication was supplemented with an in-depth assessment (EEA technical report) for each of the 11 megatrends analysed, including numerous (forward-looking) indicators. Some of these indicators are also presented in an extended form as part of the set of EEA indicators (e.g. trends in human population, economic development)

The Knowledge Innovation Project 'Within the limits of our planet' (KIP WILOP) was initiated among Environmental Knowledge Community partners in 2015, with the EEA as leading partner, as a response to the knowledge needs for policy making in combination with significant recent scientific advances in the field. The project aims to operationalise the concept of planetary boundaries at the EU scale, in order to provide knowledge for future-oriented strategic policymaking.

Outlook

A revision and update of aspects of global megatrends will be provided as part of the next SOER in 2020. Furthermore, a framework for assessing the impacts of global megatrends at national levels (work conducted in collaboration with the National Reference Centre for Forward-Looking Information and Services) is currently being developed.

The planetary boundaries work will be further developed within the WILOP project in the coming 2-3 years. This will include systematic efforts to downscale planetary boundaries to the European scale and to measure European performance against the downscaled allowances, as well as in-depth analysis of single 'pilot planetary boundaries' and potential policy integration. 

 

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