Europe Feels the Heat, Five Year Assessment Finds

COPENHAGEN, Denmark, December 2, 2005 (ENS) - Climate change tops the list of environmental challenges facing Europe, according to a State of the Environment report issued Tuesday by the European Environment Agency. Policy makers, businesses and individuals must act now or pay a heavy price later, the report warns.

The four hottest years on record were 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004. Ten percent of Alpine glaciers disappeared during the summer of 2003 alone. At current rates, three quarters of Switzerland's glaciers will have melted by 2050. Europe has not seen climate changes on this scale for 5,000 years, says the new report.

"Without effective action over several decades, global warming will see ice sheets melting in the north and the spread of deserts from the south. The continent's population could effectively become concentrated in the center. Even if we constrain global warming to the EU target of a two degree increase, we will be living in atmospheric conditions that human beings have never experienced. Deeper cuts in emissions are needed," says Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the European Environment Agency (EEA).

McGlade

Professor Jacqueline McGlade is executive director of the European Environment Agency. (Photo courtesy ENB)
"The European Environment - State and Outlook 2005," a five year assessment across 31 countries, provides an overview of Europe's environment and points to challenges of which climate change is just one. Other areas of concern include biodiversity, marine ecosystems, land and water resources, air pollution and health.

For the first time, the report has a country by country analysis with performance indicators and comparisons for all of the participants: the EU-25 plus Bulgaria, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Romania, Turkey and including Switzerland.

The report says Europe's average temperature rose by 0.95 degrees Celsius during the 20th century. This is 35 percent higher than the global average increase of 0.7 degrees C and temperatures will continue to rise. The EU has recognized this and set a target limiting the global temperature increase to 2 degrees C above pre industrial levels.

Past EU legislation on environment has worked, says the report. "We have cleaned up our water and our air, phased out some ozone depleting substances and have doubled rates of waste recycling. We also have cars that pollute less; without the dramatic improvements made by catalytic converters over the past 20 years, certain emissions would have been 10 times the level they are now. Yet, it has taken 10 to 20 years for these actions to show results," the report says.

But these environmental success stories are now being overtaken by changes in personal consumption patterns.

Europeans are living longer and more people live alone, putting greater demands on living space. Between 1990 and 2000, more than 800,000 hectares, of Europe's land was built on. That is an area three times the size of Luxembourg. If this trend continues, the urban area will double in just over a century. Managing urban sprawl is essential if Europe is to protect its natural resources, says the report.

European Commissioner for Environment Stavros Dimas commented on the EEA report Thursday, speaking at a UK Presidency event on ways to stimulate eco-innovation and environmental technologies in the EU.

"Europe’s air and water is becoming clearer, we no longer have lead in our petrol, acid rain has decreased substantially, and we have taken decisive steps to eliminate CFCs and reverse the damage to the ozone layer," he said.

Dimas found one clear lesson from these examples - progress has been the result of firm and binding regulations.

Alps

Snow and ice on the Swiss Alps are melting faster than ever before. (Photo credit unknown)
"But it is equally clear," the commissioner said, "that if we are to successful implement our policy objectives we will need technological innovation. From climate change, to the alarming loss of biodiversity, to the need for sustainable production and consumption – real progress will only be possible if we can successfully promote new ideas, new processes and new technologies.

"As we have seen with wind energy," Stavros said, "these innovations can give Europe a competitive advantage. The market for environmental technologies is global – and it is expanding rapidly."

"Policy makers must be farsighted," said Professor McGlade. "We need a gradual shift away from taxes on labor and investment towards taxes on pollution and the inefficient use of materials and land."

"We also need reforms in the way that subsidies are applied to transport, housing, energy and agriculture. We need subsidies encouraging sustainable practices and efficient technologies," she said.

Europeans travel further and more often and are consuming the planet's natural resources at twice the world's average rate, the agency reports.

Transport is the fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Air travel is expected to double between now and 2030. As a result, Europeans leave a clear footprint outside Europe, depleting natural resources and damaging the world's environment.

Eurobarometer polls show that over 70 percent of Europeans want decision makers to give equal weight to environmental, economic and social policies. To take these views into account, the report underlines that policy makers must work with each other at European, national and local levels. They must integrate environmental considerations across sectors such as transport, agriculture and energy and set up a framework within which individuals and business can take action.

"With the necessary incentives built in, such reforms will lead to more investment, innovation and competitiveness. We have already seen this in practice in certain countries and sectors," says Professor McGlade.

"Strong taxation of petrol in Europe and high regulatory standards led to cars that have been almost twice as fuel efficient as cars on America's roads, in recent decades," she said.

"We have seen the cost of inaction in terms of people's lives and our environment with examples such as the collapse of fish stocks, the use of asbestos in buildings, acid rain and lead in petrol," McGlade said. "It pays to act now to secure the long term."