EEA report shows Europe is living off world’s natural capital

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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”.

At the EEA press conference, Commission Vice-President Wallström underlined that despite the progress made, "Europe is not on a path to sustainable development". Responding to a question from Green MEP Satu Hassi on the dangers of the Lisbon strategy weakening the EU's environment policy, the former environment commissioner openly admitted that there are clear "conflicts of interest" between competitiveness and the environment. She pointed to the fact that big business has to provide value for shareholders in much shorter timeframes than the ones needed when looking at sustainable development.

Challenged on the issue of a possible tax reform as suggested by the report, Mrs Wallström admitted that "realistically tax reform is not possible". This immediately led to an angry reaction by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) which has been running a campaign on environmental fiscal reform for a few years. EEB Secretary General John Hontelez called the Commissioner's answer "unacceptable" and stated: "Refusing to launch a major initiative to boost environmental fiscal reforms inside the EU is refusing leadership in environmental policies."

Commenting on the EEA report, WWF's Tony Long said "We think we have a good environmental record but we are riding on natural resources of poorer countries and exporting our pollution. Europe needs to learn to consume less, pollute less and trade more lightly on the planet. Perpetuating the inequality of living at the expense of some of the poorest countries in the world makes European environmental standards nothing to be proud about."

EEA's executive director Jacqueline McGlade presented the report 'The European Environment - State and Outlook 2005' to the European Parliament on 29 November 2005. The report is the third five-year assessment of progress and challenges in the field of European environmental policy. 

Since the EEA's last report in 1999, the Union has grown from 15 to 25 member states and focused its strategy on the challenges of globalisation and the competitiveness of Europe's economy (the so-called 'Lisbon agenda for growth and jobs'). This has led some political and economic players to demand less stringent environmental policies.

  • The Commission is expected to present its plans for a review of the 2001 Sustainable Development Strategy on 13 December.

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