Europe to Reduce Environmental Pressure on Earth’s Life Support Systems

Europe is part of a highly globalised world that is characterised by a variety of large-scale, high impact and often interdependent changes, known as global megatrends.

Due to unprecedented economic and population growth over the last 100-150 years, excessive burdens on the global ecosystem are likely to lead to higher resource demands and associated pressures on ecosystems in the coming decades.  This raises questions about the limits of tolerable environmental pressure on the Earth’s life support systems, sometimes referred to as planetary boundaries.

Recognising that the total global environmental burden is indeed rapidly moving beyond globally sustainable limits, it is important to better understand how Europe’s future ecological and societal resilience might by affected by current and future global trends, and conversely, how European systems of production and consumption are contributing to environmental pressures in other parts of the world.

Many global trends have significant consequences for Europe. The European Environment State and Outlook 2015 report identified  11 global megatrends (GMT)  that will be of greatest importance for Europe’s environment in the long term. Demographic, economic or geopolitical developments elsewhere can influence the availability and price of natural resources and energy in European countries. Likewise, increasing environmental pollution in other world regions can contribute to direct environmental and human harm in Europe.

The report shows that although European emissions of ozone precursor gases have declined significantly in recent decades, measured concentrations of ground-level ozone have not fallen at most ground monitoring stations. There is evidence that this is partly due to the long-range transport of precursor gases from other parts of the world.

Naturally, Europe also contributes to environmental pressures in other parts of the world. Greenhouse gas emissions in Europe contribute to climate change impacts elsewhere and potentially far into the future. Globalised supply chains mean that European consumption contributes to pressures on ecosystems and communities in other areas of the globe, threatening global freshwater quality and quantity, and leading to the degradation of habitats and landscapes.

For some environmental pressures, there are clear indications that improvements on European territory have been offset by an increasing European footprint in other parts of the world. While the total amount of agricultural land within the EU has decreased slightly over the past decade, the EU has a disproportionally high global cropland footprint consuming, directly or indirectly, more than twice the amount of agricultural land it uses internally.

In fact, human pressures on the Earth system have reached a scale where irreversible or even catastrophic global changes can no longer be excluded. Such irreversible changes could make the Earth a much less hospitable place. Planetary boundaries, proposed by Steffen et al (2015), indicate nine critical processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system: climate change, novel entities, stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading, ocean acidification, biogeochemical flows, freshwater use, land-system change, and biosphere integrity.

Planetary boundaries highlight the idea that sustainable development can only be achieved within a safe operating space for humanity identified by the biophysical realities of critical natural thresholds. However, bridging from concept to policy application and integration involves the challenge of making the global concept relevant and tangible at the continental, national or even local scales. This includes downscaling the concept of planetary boundaries to the European scale and measuring Europe’s performance against these downscaled limits, including Europe’s external footprint of production and consumption.

Over recent years, the EU has developed and adopted a range of long-term strategies with a societal transition perspective towards 2050. Most prominently, the Seventh Environmental Action Programme (7th EAP) — the strategic guiding document for all environmental policymaking in the current policy cycle until 2020 — sets out the vision of ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’, which directly relates to the idea of planetary boundaries. The 7th EAP formulates an engaging but ambitious vision about Europe as a low carbon society with a green and circular economy, and resilient ecosystems as the basis for European well-being by 2050. This vision is underpinned with multiple long-term goals, such as the Roadmap for moving to a competitive low-carbon economy (EC, 2011a), the long-term 2050 target for biodiversity and ecosystem services (natural capital protected, valued and appropriately restored) as part of the biodiversity strategy (EC, 2011b), or the goal of zero land take by 2050 as part of the Roadmap to a resource efficient Europe (EC, 2011c).

The successful delivery of these long-term visions and goals requires new and improved knowledge on the rapidly changing global context. This relates to both how Europe’s environment and societies might be impacted by global megatrends and, conversely, how Europe’s systems of production and consumption contribute to shaping global environmental pressures on a planet Earth with biophysical boundaries and limits.

Image: Bela Geletneky

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About Irena Savic

Irena Savic carries out research on climate change and examines the efficiency of international policies aimed at environmental protection.

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