Don Quixote and Patrick Swayze: A modern love story

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Agriculture, fisheries, transport, industry, tourism and urban sprawl: human activity continues to degrade Europe’s natural capital. Add to this global environmental pressures, driven by population growth and changing patterns of ever-increasing and unprecedented consumption.

This state of affairs is outlined in the 2015 State of the Environment Report (SOER 2015) from the Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency (EEA) – an EU agency that provides objective information on the environment. They release a SOER report every five years that reflects on trends and the state of the European environment, informing environmental policy over the coming five years.

This year’s report is significant, as Europe is halfway between the beginning of its environmental policy in the early 1970s and major goals that have been set for 2050. The hope is to start living within the planet’s limits within the next 35 years. But despite some positive short-term trends, the long-term outlook is less encouraging.

Policies are working
One key finding is that political policies can make a positive impact on the environment. For example, despite a 45% rise in economic production, European greenhouse emissions have dropped by 19% since 1990. This move toward a low carbon economy is positive for the climate in general, while also resulting in cleaner water and air.

Environmental policies can also positively impact the economy. For example, policies to reduce environmental degradation and preserve natural resources have driven a 50% growth in industries that provide these services between 2000 and 2011.

Europe is much less successful in its efforts to preserve biodiversity – the richness and variety of life forms on the continent. The EU estimates that biodiversity loss costs the European economy around €450 billion per year. But despite policies to protect vulnerable habitats and species, Europe is not on track to meet its target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020. Factors to blame in this regard include constant habitat loss, over-exploitation of resources, the growing impacts of invasive alien species and climate change.

Speaking of climate change, Europe is performing well in the short term but the long-term outlook is less optimistic. While the economic crisis lowered transport demand and reduced emissions, new policies are needed if we are to create sustainable transport systems. And despite the massive reduction in emissions since 1990, current policies are insufficient to bring the EU towards a planned decarbonisation in 2050.

Denmark’s status
Compared to other countries, the environmental outlook in Denmark isn’t as dire. Recycling increased by 20% between 2004 and 2012, while the share of renewable energy in the energy mix rose from 5.8% in 1990 to 23.3% in 2012 – one of the three highest increases in Europe.

But while pesticide levels in groundwater have decreased, pesticide use still exceeds national limits. Air pollution remains a concern, especially particulate pollution from wood stoves and diesel engines, and levels of nitrogen dioxide in cities still exceed EU limits.

Denmark also remains one of the most wasteful countries in Europe, producing 668kg of municipal waste per resident per year – the EU average in 2012 was 492kg.

Only around 3% of waste is landfilled, however, while over 52% is incinerated for heat and energy use. The government’s resource strategy from 2013 aims to increase household recycling by up to 50%.

Technology and policy
SOER 2015 cannot be adequately summarised in this research column. However, a key conclusion of the report is that systems of production and consumption are the root cause of environmental and climate pressures.

So if we want to live within ecological limits, a fundamental transition in how we produce and consume energy and goods is needed. The globalised nature of these issues makes them difficult to tackle.  But by taking a lead, The EEA argues that Europe can put itself, “at the frontier of science and technology”.

But while environmental policies have benefit the health of Europe’s ecosystems and its residents, more action is needed if we are to achieve the EU’s ambitious long-term goals. By 2050, the EU envisions a sustainable, waste-free and so-called ‘circular economy’ that is low-carbon and whose growth is not dependent on resource use.

Achieving this, the EEA argues, will require environmental policies, technology innovation and changed behaviours – none of which are sufficient on its own. Ultimately, we will need to find completely new ways of doing things. Above all, transitioning to this new and sustainable “green” economy will require profound changes in institutions, technologies, policies, lifestyles and thinking. M


By Lesley-Ann Brown

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