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Europe’s environmental report card shows vast room for improvement

The European Environment Agency has released its report card on Europe’s environmental performance, with the data showing that reductions in carbon emissions of 19 per cent since 1990 have had anything but a negative impact on the economy.

Economic output has increased by 45 per cent during the same period with fewer resources consumed, as total resource use is down 19 per cent since 2007.

The European environment – state and outlook 2015 is a five-yearly integrated assessment that includes data at global, regional and national levels, as well as cross-country comparisons.

It states that while air and water quality are improving in some countries due to pollution reductions and recycling rates up across the EU, loss of soil function, land degradation and climate change still remain major concerns.

Despite the success of carbon emissions reductions in some nations, overall emissions reductions are not sufficient to put the EU on track towards its 2050 target of reducing emissions by 80-95 per cent. In some nations, such as Turkey, emissions are on the rise.

Air and noise pollution are both still causing serious health impacts, particularly in the cities, with up to 30 per cent of Europeans living in cities that have pollution levels exceeding EU air quality guidelines, and 96 per cent of people exposed at least once between 2009 and 2011 to levels of pollution exceeding the more stringent World Health Organization guidelines.

In 2011, 430,000 premature deaths were attributed to fine particulate matter, which is found in pollution from facilities such as coal-fired power stations or transport-related pollution from vehicle exhausts. Exposure to environmental noise is estimated to contribute to at least 10,000 premature deaths from coronary heart disease and strokes annually.

The total cost of damage to human health and the environment from air pollution in 2012 is estimated to be upwards of $59 billion euros, with 67 per cent of industry-related air pollution coming from the energy sector. Business, public buildings and households are responsible for around 50 per cent of total small particulate and carbon monoxide pollution.

The growing use of chemicals is stated to be a concern, particularly those in consumer products, as researchers have associated these substances with the growing increase in endocrine diseases and disorders within the population.

Biodiversity loss also gets a red flag, with 60 per cent of protected species and 77 per cent of habitat types still considered to have “unfavourable” conservation status. Ongoing climate change impacts are also expected to contribute to pressures on biodiversity, and the EU is overall not on-track to meet its target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020.

Four key approaches are proposed to assist the EU economy transition to a sustainable, low-carbon model. They are:

  • Mitigating known ecosystem and human health impacts while creating socioeconomic opportunities through resource-efficient technological innovations
  • adapting to expected climate and other environmental changes by increasing resilience, for example in cities
  • avoiding potentially serious environmental harm to people’s health and well-being and ecosystems by taking precautionary and preventive action, based on early warnings from science
  • Restoring resilience in ecosystems and society by enhancing natural resources, contributing to economic development and addressing social inequities

“Europe’s success in moving towards a green economy will depend in part on striking the right balance between these four approaches,” the report states.

“Policy packages that include objectives and targets explicitly recognising the relationships between resource efficiency, ecosystem resilience and human well-being would accelerate the reconfiguration of Europe’s systems of production and consumption.

“Governance approaches that engage citizens, non-governmental organisations, businesses and cities would offer additional levers in this context.”

  • See the report and associated documents including cross-country comparisons

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