The European Environment Agency’s newest state of the environment report indicates that, despite remarkable progress in the last 20 years, the continent is not on a path to a sustainable future.
The report, although diplomatic in its final wording, is revealing when analysed in detail. The key conclusions of the report are the following:
- significant progress was made over the past 30 years in several areas, but unsustainable trends remain in sectors such as energy, transport and agriculture;
- Europe impacts “disproportionately” on the rest of the world’s environment through its ecological footprint (a qualitative indicator developed to measure the estimated land area required to produce the resources we consume and to absorb the waste we generate);
- to tackle the unsustainable trends, Europe needs more integration of environmental objectives across policy areas such as energy, transport, agriculture, industry or spatial planning;
- shifts in consumption and production behaviour will be needed;
- internalising the real costs of pollution and resource depletion will lead to prices that reflect these costs;
- the cost of inaction can be many times the cost of sensible preventive measures.
The report highlights in over 570 pages the main challenges of EU environment policy:
- increasing urbanisation and urban sprawl, leading to shrinking of natural productive capital;
- climate change
- improved energy efficiency and declining energy demand from industry have been offset by rising energy consumption;
- some progress on air pollution (smog, acid rain), but problems with fine particulates and ground-level ozone (“Europe loses 200 million working days a year to air pollution-related illness”);
- growing cocktail of chemical pollutants;
- waste water pollution – improvement still needed;
- depletion of natural resources (fish stocks, biodiversity).
Although the report paints a dire and comprehensive picture of the environmental challenges, it remains general and vague in its policy recommendations:
- it states the need to encourage behavioural changes (how?)
- it recommends institutional reforms (which ones?) and “financial planning that encourages greater eco-efficiency”;
- it suggests “moving away from environmentally damaging subsidies towards supporting the development and use of eco-innovations in manufacturing, energy, transport and agriculture”;
- it makes a plea for a “gradual shift of the tax base away from taxing ‘good resources’ such as investment and labour towards taxing ‘bad resources’ such as pollution and inefficient use”.