Europe ‘decoupling’ water pollution from economic growth, EEA says


Over the past decade the levels of nutrient pollution in Europe’s waters fell despite economic growth and an increasing population, according to statistics compiled by the European Environmental Agency (EEA).

The statistics, published on the EEA’s website this week, show that many European industries have managed to ‘decouple’ increased production from pressure on the environment.

The EEA compared figures for nutrient pollution and matched it with other data, including economic and population growth from a number of European countries, coming up with three indictors, for manufacturing, household and agriculture emissions. The EEA used figures mostly from Eurostat, the EU's statistics office.

Most countries witnessed a ‘decoupling’ trend.

“The data suggests that Europe is generally moving in the right direction in reducing nutrient pollution of water, a major cause of eutrophication. It is still a significant pollution problem, however,” the EEA says.

Eutrophication occurs when excessive nutrients from farming or other industrial activities make their way into rivers and lakes and local plant and animal life react to cope with the change.

Austria was the country which appeared to have performed best when comparing nutrient emissions in water and growth in the manufacturing industry between 2004 and 2010, showing a decline in the environmental impact of industry despite an increase in the sector’s added value.

The overall trend was for “absolute decoupling”, meaning that the countries posted economic growth while the number of nutrient emissions into water decreased. This contrasts with “relative decoupling”, in which environmental impacts decrease, but at a lower rate than growth, the EEA says.

“We see a reduction to the pressure on the environment at the same time as we are seeing economic growth,” said Bo Jacobsen, the EEA’s project manager for water. “The ideal picture is the economy growing and emissions and pollution are decreasing.”

France and the UK performed well in reducing such water-borne pollution, but also showed a fall in growth in the manufacturing sector.

Only three countries showed both an increase in nutrient pollution and a decline of growth in the manufacturing sector – Belgium, Slovakia and Poland.

“For Belgium this is not a good picture because the economy is going down and pollution is going up,” Jacobsen said.

But Jacobsen added that it was important to look at the starting point of the countries when comparing the figures.

“For Bulgaria it went down but from a very bad starting point. But if you look at the very low [nutrient polluting] countries like Ireland or Denmark, the relative change could give you the wrong message,” he said.

“The aim is to see which way the trend is going. It is to raise awareness to those industries to see how we are doing in that country. It is to motivate people to do a better environmental job,” he said.

Referring to the figures for the agriculture industry, Bernhard Mauritz Stormyr, the director of communications for Yara, a Norwegian fertiliser company, said: "These findings resonate well with that we know about increased efficiency in the use of fertilizer over the past couple of decades. European farmers have become more knowledgeable, and they increasingly use precision tools to support their farming."

Rivers across Europe still suffer from contamination from industrial chemicals, metals and toxins. Waterways in the Czech Republic, Germany and Britain are shown by the European Environment Agency to contain “excessive levels of metals, including cadmium and mercury” that threaten drinking water, while EEA studies show the Czech Republic also has among the highest levels of lead pollution.

But fertilisers and insecticides used on farms are also a major concern. Fertilisers produce nitrate runoff that is potentially harmful to humans when it enters water systems, and nurtures algae growth that upsets marine ecosystems. Both the Baltic and coastal France suffer from serious algae blooms blamed on nitrates.

Meanwhile, insecticides enter rivers through runoff from fields and to a lesser extent when they drift into the water during application. Contamination levels have been rising in many central and southern European countries for 20 years with the biggest growth expected in areas that now have relatively low agriculture pesticide pollution, says a study by the Helmholtz research centre in Germany.

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