Europe has a unique opportunity in the new year to set an innovative and clear strategy in terms of environmental policy and shape future developments. The European Commission’s new president, Ursula von der Leyen, and her College of Commissioners have pledged to reach an ambitious goal to make Europe the first carbon-neutral continent in the world by 2050.

Under the current trajectories, however, the EU is on track to miss its future green targets if it doesn’t carry out a fundamental shift in the character and ambition of its actions, warned the European Environment Agency (EEA) in its latest report.

According to EEA’s report, also known as SOER 2020, Europe has taken important steps in response to climate change so far, shaping ambitious long‑term visions and targets. With its policies, guided by the Seventh Environment Action Programme, the EU has had some positive results in areas such as resource efficiency and the circular economy. 

The environmental emergency, however, requires a more intense implementation of policies with a ‘renewed focus’ on existing EU policy targets. ‘‘We not only have to do more; we also have to do things differently,’’ said Hans Bruyninckx, the EEA’s Executive Director. 

Europe’s contribution to today’s challenges

The EU still faces urgent climate challenges amid rapid technological changes and global development have intensified those environmental uncertainties and risks. Europe’s green policies have brought substantial benefits over the recent years, but the bloc is still lagging behind mainly in biodiversity loss, resource use as well as human health and well‑being, the report highlights. 

The global radical changes that also Europe faces today – mass population growth and migration, which is projected to grow even more in the future – and the overall transformation of its social and economic activity has caused acute harm to the well-being of Europeans and their ecosystems. According to the report, many of these changes are caused by greenhouse gas emissions, human activities, the burning of fossil fuels, and deforestation.

The report underlined that Europe continues to consume more resources and contribute more to environmental degradation than other world regions. 

Positive steps towards sustainability are still not that encouraging 

European policies have contributed to the decline of material consumption, the improvement of resource efficiency, and the increase of domestic products. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions declined by 22% between 1990 and 2017, air and water pollution has been reduced and the share of renewable energy sources in final energy consumption increased steadily to 17.5% in 2017.

More recent trends are less positive and have cast a cloud of uncertainty over Europe’s ability to achieve its future green targets. As an example, final energy demand has increased since 2014 which, if this continues, makes it impossible for the EU to meet its 2020 target for energy efficiency. 

The EEA’s findings show that EU policies in protecting natural capital and human health are discouraging. Even though the bloc has done enough to designate terrestrial and marine protected areas and recover some species, its overall targets are most likely to be missed. With small proportions of protected species (23%) and habitats (16%) assessed as having a favourable conservation status, Europe is clearly not on track to meet its overall target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020.

What does Europe need to do to move on?

The EU has no other choice than to do more in addressing its environmental challenges by strengthening the bloc’s existing policy tools with new innovative approaches to governance.

According to the EEA, Europe’s stated goal of sustainability cannot be achieved if the bloc doesn’t see itself as part of an overall global environment. Europe is now expected to leverage its diplomatic and economic influence to promote and adopt ambitious agreements in the key areas of biodiversity loss and resource use. At the same time, the bloc needs to continue with the full implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, not just across its own territory, but also in other regions. 

Another important step that would make it easier for the bloc to achieve its 2050 vision includes the fostering of innovation throughout society. Even though businesses, entrepreneurs, researchers, city administrations, and local communities are already experimenting with different ways of producing and consuming, environmental policies remain essential with investments in areas such as research, innovation, sectoral, and industrial policies to education, welfare, trade and employment.

‘‘Europe has a unique window of opportunity to lead the global response to sustainability challenges. Now is the time to act,’’ the report urges. This statement by the EEA is further proof that every level of Europe’s many governments need to work together to harness the creativity and power of its citizens, businesses and communities if sustainability has a chance to become the guiding principle for all ambitious and coherent policies across European society.