COPENHAGEN — The EU is falling short of nearly every environmental goal it has set itself, according to a report on the state of the environment published Wednesday by the European Environment Agency.
The report is compiled every five years by the EU agency and paints a picture of the state of the bloc’s environment ahead of the December 11 presentation of the European Green Deal project put forward by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Rather than continue making baby steps, the bloc should rethink its approach to the environment, said Hans Bruyninckx, director of the EEA. “Marginal efficiency gains are clearly not delivering. The goal should be a fundamental shift in the economy towards sustainability,” he said.
That’s what the Green Deal aims to do — and the report lays out the scale of the challenge in stark terms. From the quality of the air to the decline in animal species, and from chemical pollution to overfishing and sprawling urbanization, “we are hardly reaching any of our goals for 2020,” Bruyninckx told reporters at a briefing at the agency’s headquarters in Copenhagen.
The headline challenge is climate change. Although the bloc is expected to exceed its 2020 target of cutting emissions by 20 percent compared with 1990 levels, the future outlook is less positive. The emissions trajectory is not in line with the goal of a 40 percent emissions cut by 2030 (something von der Leyen wants to boost to 50 percent or even 55 percent), nor with the ambition to become a climate-neutral Continent by 2050.
Systemic break down
For decades production and consumption patterns in Europe for things like food, raw materials, transport and energy have developed at the expense of the natural environment, and the consequences are now starting to bite.
“We start to see tipping points in systems and they are complex and interconnected,” said Bruyninckx.
Harvest losses due to soil erosion already cost the EU €1.25 billion per year, and it will get worse. According to the EEA, rising temperatures will lead to permanent crop losses of up to 50 percent in Mediterranean regions over the next decades.
Less than a quarter of observed species and habitats are in good health, and Europe is on track to miss its target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020. The cost of this failure is been estimated at €13 billion per year due to things like soil regeneration and pollination, which healthy ecosystems provide and on which food systems depend.
Although Europe has decreased the material intensity of its economy by using less raw materials per unit of industrial output, waste production is on the rise, while the use of recycled materials is flat at around 12 percent.
“Not only are we producing more [waste], but the facilities to keep up with the actual recycling and then doing things with the materials have not kept up,” said Bruyninckx.
The bloc is making progress on air pollution — premature deaths from particulate matter are expected to fall from 418,000 in 2005 to 194,000 in 2030, but many people are still exposed to pollution at concentrations above what’s considered safe by the World Health Organization.
Green Deal challenge
The Green Deal is supposed to be about more than climate change — it’s meant to be a broad response to a host of environmental challenges. It’s set to commit to a “Farm to Fork” strategy meant to transform the food system; a ‘zero pollution ambition’ aimed at protecting human and environmental health; a new circular economy action plan to tackle the textile and construction waste; a biodiversity strategy for 2030 which the EU will champion at a global summit in China next year; and a climate law meant to enshrine the goal of climate-neutrality by 2050 into legislation.
The Commission will have to find a balance between environmental protection and economic growth, all while selling the program to the public.
“This is a tall order. If you … do it in a condescending way or you alienate people, or you don’t invest in the social dimension, I never think this will work. There will be bumps in the road,” said Bruyninckx.
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