Our planet is facing unprecedented challenges to its environment and climate, which together threaten our well-being. Yet, it is not too late to take decisive action. The task might seem daunting but we still have the possibility to reverse some of the negative trends, adapt to minimise harm, restore crucial ecosystems and protect much stronger what we still have. To achieve long-term sustainability, we need to approach the environment, climate, economy and society as inseparable parts of the same entity.
has been a constant feature of our planet. Its landmass, oceans, atmosphere,
climate and life on earth have always been changing. What makes current changes
different from the past is their unprecedented pace and scale and the factors
and drivers behind them. Extreme events, such as once in a 100-year storms,
heat waves, flooding and droughts, have become our new reality. Press headlines
around the world point to a climate and environmental crisis, affecting the
future of our species.
Global climate is changing and
the change is man-made
term we choose to use is — “our new reality” or “multiple crises” — the facts
are clear. The global climate is changing and this change is man-made. Our
economies’ dependence on fossil fuels, land use practices and global
deforestation are increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere,
which in turn change the global climate. It is also clear that climate change
is affecting everyone and every corner of our planet, including Europe. Some communities
might suffer extensive heat waves and droughts, while others might face more
frequent and more severe storms. People, nature and the economy are all
impacted by climate change.
Biodiversity lost at
Science is also
firm on the fact that the diversity of life on earth is being lost at an
unsustainable rate. Every year, many species are declared extinct, as their
habitats continue to get destroyed, fragmented or polluted. Some species,
including pollinators like bees
and butterflies that are
vital to our wellbeing, have seen their populations dramatically reduced due to
widespread use of pesticides. Pollutants generated by economic activities
accumulate in the environment, reducing ecosystems’ ability to regenerate and
provide us vital services. Environmental degradation affects not only plants
and animals but also people.
Consumption and production
systems are unsustainable
The 21st century
has also been marked by economic and financial crisis. Research confirms that
our consumption and production systems are simply unsustainable. The linear
economic model — turning raw materials into goods that are used, consumed
and then discarded — does not only lead to accumulating amounts of
pollution and waste but also to global competition for natural resources.
Global networks can spread more than materials, goods and pollutants: a crisis
starting in the finance sector in one country can spread across the globe and
cause years-long economic stagnation and contraction.
It is also clear
that the benefits of economic growth are not shared equally around the world.
Income levels vary significantly between and within countries, regions and
cities. Even in Europe, with living standards well above the global average,
there are communities and groups living with incomes below the poverty line.
Unfortunately, some of these communities
and people are also more vulnerable to environmental hazards. They are
more likely to live in areas exposed to air pollution and flooding and in
houses with insufficient insulation to protect them from extreme cold and heat.
The groups enjoying the benefits are not necessarily those bearing the costs.
current trends continue, regardless of their country and income level, future
generations will be faced with more extreme temperatures and weather events,
fewer species, growing resource scarcity and more pollution. Given this
outlook, it is not surprising that thousands of young Europeans are
demonstrating on the streets, urging policy makers to take more ambitious and
effective action to mitigate climate change.
Another future is possible
Over the past 40
years, Europe has been putting in place policies to tackle specific problems,
such as air pollution and water pollution. Some of these policies have had remarkable results. Europeans
enjoy cleaner air and cleaner bathing waters. A greater share
of municipal waste is recycled. More and more land and marine areas are protected. The
European Union has been reducing its greenhouse gas emissions compared
to 1990 levels. Billions of euros have been invested in more liveable cities
and sustainable mobility. Energy generated from renewable sources grew
this period, our knowledge and understanding of the environment have also
expanded, underlining the fact that people, the environment and the economy are
all parts of the same system. In the 25 years since its founding, the European
Environment Agency has been connecting and developing these spheres of
knowledge to enhance our systemic understanding. People cannot live well if the
environment and the economy are in bad health. Inequality in the distribution
of benefits, such as economic wealth and cleaner air, and costs, including
pollution and yields lost to drought, will continue causing social unrest.
facts can be difficult to accept. Similarly, established governance structures,
consumer habits and preferences can be difficult to change. Yet, despite the
magnitude of the task, it is still possible to build a sustainable future. This
entails halting some current practices, such as cutting environmentally harmful
subsidies and phasing out and banning polluting technologies, while supporting
sustainable alternatives and the communities affected by change. A
carbon-neutral, circular economy can reduce demands on our natural capital and
limit the rise in global temperatures. Changing our course will also require changing
our habits and behaviours, for example, in the way we move and what we eat. The
knowledge to steer this transition towards long-term sustainability is there.
There is also growing public support for change. Now, we need to assume
responsibility and accelerate this change.