Europe takes stock of the state of the environment

January 16, 2020

Europe takes stock of the state of the environment

In the sixth State of the Environment Report, European experts provide a general picture of the situation in Europe and highlight the importance of taking action to protect the whole planet

The State of the Environment Report is an important document for everyone concerned about the future,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, when commenting on the publication of the sixth edition of the document “The European environment: state and outlook 2020” (SOER 2020). The report was drawn up by the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the European Environment Information and Observation Network (Eionet). As the authors explain, it contains a general assessment of the state of the European environment to support governance and inform public opinion. “The State of the Environment Report is perfectly timed to give us the added impetus we need as we start a new five-year cycle in the European Commission,” added Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President in charge of the European Green Deal.

The situation is not good

The environmental situation in Europe has not improved compared to 2015, when the previous report was published. Of course, progress has been made in some areas, especially those relating to resource efficiency and circular economy, as well as initiatives aimed at achieving “sustainable finance”. However, many challenges await us, the first of them being biodiversity, an area in which there has been little improvement so far. This is also demonstrated by the fact that only two of the 13 specific goals set for 2020 are likely to be met (designation of marine and terrestrial protected areas), while it is clear that, unless we drastically change course, the deterioration of the environment will only get worse in the near future. Current trends are also threatening the achievement of longer-term energy and climate goals, namely for 2030 and 2050: in fact, there have been slowdowns in areas such as gas emission reduction, waste generation, energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy. Finally, we need to take into account the demographic and technological changes that have a significant impact on the environment, as well as the fact that many of Europe’s activities are affecting the environment outside Europe. 

Change is needed to comply with limits 

The ultimate aim of European environmental policies and of the long-term sustainability goals set by European experts is “living well within the limits of our planet". In the current situation, which is the result of a process that began several decades ago when major global developments occurred, it is rather difficult to comply with these limits. Since 1950, the global population has tripled, the number of people living in cities has quadrupled, and the huge increase in economic output has been matched by an increase in the use of energy and fertilizers. While this acceleration has brought benefits such as a decrease in the number of people living in extreme poverty globally (from 42% in 1981 to less than 10% in 2015), it has had an unprecedented impact on the environment, to the point that 75% of the terrestrial environment and 40% of marine environment are now severely altered. These pressures also weigh on people’s health and well-being: morbidity and mortality linked to environmental pollution are three times higher than those caused by AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. All this being said, we need to do more, but we also need to do things differently. “We cannot predict the future, but we can create it,wrote EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx in the introduction to SOER 2020

Seven areas of concrete action

We are running out of time and complex challenges lie ahead, but we can still take concrete action to successfully implement Europe’s sustainable future project. In particular, the latest edition of the State of the Environment Report identifies seven areas in which we need to be more active and resourceful with a view to achieving the 2030 and 2050 sustainability goals. These include fully implementing current environmental policies, starting with sustainability to develop European policies, setting an international benchmark for sustainability, investing more and reorienting current finance, ensuring that change towards a sustainable Europe is managed fairly, and creating new environmental knowledge and expertise to better understand the challenges ahead and implement effective solutions. All this should be done while keeping in mind the social aspects of change, supporting behavioral changes and listening to and involving citizens, who can only play a part in the journey towards sustainability if they are well informed and aware. “Neither should we ignore the young people of Europe. They are increasingly making their voices heard to demand a more ambitious response to climate change and environmental degradation,” points out Bruyninckx.