The 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP) ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’ entered into force in 2014. Within this programme the European Union outlined an engaging vision of the future to 2050:a low carbon society; a green, circular economy; and resilient ecosystems as the basis for citizens’ wellbeing. However, new evidence suggests that our existing environmental policy may not be enough to achieve the EU’s long term environmental goals by 2050.
The European Environment — State and Outlook 2015 Report was released on the 3rd March 2015 and was prepared by the European Environment Agency (EEA). The report provides a comprehensive assessment of the state, trends and prospects of the European environment, placing it in a global context. The work aims to inform European environmental policy implementation and analyses the opportunities to modify existing policies in order to achieve the EU’s 2050 vision of “living well within the limits of the planet.”
What are the take home messages?
Overall the report reveals that whilst policies have delivered substantial benefits for the functioning of Europe’s ecosystems, the challenges that the continent faces today are considerable. The most significant challenges relate to protecting, conserving and enhancing natural capital. The key messages from the report are the following:
1: Europe is not on track to halt biodiversity loss, as habitats for animals and plants continue to disappear.
Europe’s natural capital is not yet being protected, conserved and enhanced in line with the ambitions of the 7th Environment Action Programme. High proportions of protected species (60%) and habitat types (77%) are considered to be in unfavourable conservation status. Europe is not on track to meet its overall target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020. This loss is particularly associated with the marine and coastal environment and the functioning of soils.
2: European marine and coastal biodiversity is declining, jeopardising vital ecosystem services
Marine and coastal ecosystems and biodiversity are under pressure throughout Europe, and their status is of concern. Over the last 5-10 years, many species are in jeopardy, with a low number of species categorised as in favourable conservation status or good environmental status. The target of achieving good environmental status by 2020 is at risk due to overfishing, sea floor damage, pollution by nutrient enrichment and contaminants (including marine litter and underwater noise), introduction of invasive alien species, and the acidification of Europe’s seas. The assessment predicts that over the next 20 years, the pressures and effects of climate change on marine ecosystems are set to continue.
3. European land-use change and intensification increasingly threaten soil function and ecosystem services
Land use is a major factor influencing the distribution and functioning of ecosystems in Europe. Degradation, fragmentation and unsustainable use of land is jeopardising the provision of natural capital, threatening biodiversity, and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters. The report reveals that soil erosion, contamination and sealing are persistent problems for the EU’s territory. Over the last 5-10 years, there have been significant losses of soil functions due to urban land take and land degradation, resulting from soil erosion and land intensification. Over 30% of Europe’s landscape is highly fragmented, affecting the connectivity and health of ecosystems. This reduces the ability of ecosystems to provide services, and to provide viable habitats for species. The assessment predicts that there will be very little change in land use, or the environmental and socio-economic drivers that shape it, over the next 20 years.
4. Europe will continue to feel the increasing impacts of climate change, with serious losses for biodiversity
Climate change is occurring in Europe and around the world. Climatic changes have established new records in recent years: mean temperature has increased, and precipitation patterns have changed. The report reveals that over the last 5-10 years, the life cycles and distribution of many species have changed due to temperature increase, warming oceans and shrinking of our frozen environments. Looking ahead (over 20 years), stronger and more numerous climate change impacts are predicted, with increasingly serious losses of biodiversity.
5. The UK needs to overcome a variety of challenges to protect biodiversity
The report revealed that there have been marked improvements to the UK’s environment over the last decade. The UK has experienced reductions in pollution in rivers and lakes, decreased amounts of waste (including plastic bags) and a downward trend in emissions. However, what is clear is that the UK still has a number of issues to tackle, in order to protect, conserve and enhance our natural capital. Specifically, the UK will need to address the following issues:
a. Reductions in all aspects of biodiversity (specifically farmland birds, priority species and habitats of European Importance)
b. Loss of riverine and lake habitat
c. Declines in biodiversity in the marine and coastal environment (including seabirds and mammals)
What’s next for the UK?
The State and Outlook 2015 Report has highlighted a number of opportunities to modify existing policies in order to achieve the EU’s 2050 vision of “living well within the limits of the planet.” This evidence should be heeded if the UK is to secure a better natural environment and to put in place foundations for a change in culture and behaviours. This cannot be done by government alone, individuals, businesses, community groups and Non-Governmental Organisations will need to work collaboratively to achieve this ambition.