Europe and Central Asia
9 Apr 2015

Judging EU policies: a closer look at the EEA’s State of the Environment Report

European landscape © Amanda Rogers
By Wouter Langhout

One way to find out if the EU’s environment is getting a passing grade is to check out the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) 5 year State of the Environment report. The verdict? A mixed bag

One thing is unequivocal: we get a failing grade when it comes to biodiversity (the variety of plant and animal species that share the planet with us). In fact, nearly 60% of the species and 77% of the habitats that should be protected by the EU Habitats Directive are suffering. More and more, farms are focused on producing as much as they can, at all costs, transforming fields into habitats that are unsuitable for plants and animals to live in. Our cities have expanded, and rivers and streams have been dammed and modified. Pollution levels are as high as ever, the climate is changing, and invasive plants and species are driving native European plants and animals to extinction. It’s not looking good, we are not on track to achieve the 2020 biodiversity targets that EU leaders agreed to in 2011.

However, the EEA does say that if we put it to work, the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 could be a tool to turn the tide for biodiversity. But to do so we need to tackle the challenges that some business sectors and EU laws are posing. In particular, we need to look at agriculture, fisheries, regional development and cohesion, forestry, energy, tourism, transport and industry. For example, we’ll need to make sure to that the use of fertilizers in agriculture stops polluting our rivers. The EEA’s report also highlights the necessity of restoring at least 15% of the ecosystems that are in a poor state and expanding green infrastructure (green space in cities and the countryside).

Where Europe is doing well, is on having many good laws in place to protect the environment. They generally work, Europe’s ecosystems are in a much better state than they would be without these laws, and citizens are healthier. When looking at Euros, the environmental laws have even been good for the pocket books as well. For example, the European network of Natura 2000 protected areas alone contributes 200 to 300 billion Euro per year to the European economy. Environmental laws have allowed for innovation and created a market for products and activities that are environmentally friendly and encourage a more sustainable economy.

But where we certainly don’t get top marks is when one looks at what’s in store for the future. A lot of what is happening outside Europe affects the environment in the EU. Although the EU is a major emitter of CO2, many other countries such as the USA are major emitters as well, and so climate change can only be tackled worldwide. At the same time, the appetite of EU consumers affects the environment in other countries. The import of bioenergy crops to the EU results in deforestation elsewhere. The report shows that we need some radical changes to ensure living well doesn’t mean we consume more than the environment can tolerate in any place.

The overall assessment emerging from the report is, unfortunately, rather negative for the European Union. No one likes to get a failing grade, but these sorts of evaluations should be seen as a wake-up call to action. They allow us to see where we are doing well, and where we need to work harder. One thing that is sure is that if we have the courage to make the necessary changes, we will live well, within the limits of our planet as envisioned in the 2050 vision of the EU’s 7th Environmental Action Programme. So let’s do what we need to do now and in the future, and make sure that in 5 years’ time we do better.

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Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.