Europe must act now on climate change or 'feel the heat '

Posted: 29 November 2005

Climate change heads a series of environmental challenges facing Europe, says a new assessment, which forecasts ice sheets melting in the north and deserts spreading from the south, with the population crowded into a central area, unless urgent action is taken.

"Policy makers, businesses and individuals must act now on a range of environmental matters or pay a heavy price later" says the European Environment Agency (EEA).

The four hottest years on record were 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004, it reports. Ten per cent 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 EEA.

The European Environment - State and Outlook 2005, is a five-year assessment across 31 countries. It says areas of concern, other than climate change, 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.

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

"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 centre. Even if we constrain global warming to the EU target of a 2 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 EEA.

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 twenty years, certain emissions would have been ten times the level they are now. Yet, it has taken ten to twenty years for these actions to show results, the report says.

These environmental success stories are now being overtaken by changes in personal consumption patterns. Europeans are living longer and more of us 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, our urban area will double in just over a century. Managing urban sprawl is essential if we are to protect our natural resources, says the report.

We travel further and more often and are consuming the planet's natural resources at twice the world's average rate. Transport is the fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. For example, air travel is expected to double between now and 2030. As a result, we leave a clear footprint outside Europe, depleting natural resources and damaging the world's environment.

Pollution taxes

Eurobarometer polls show that over 70 per cent 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.

"Policy makers must be farsighted. We need a gradual shift away from taxes on labour 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," says Professor McGlade.

"With the necessary incentives built in, such reforms will lead to more investment, innovation and competitiveness. We've already seen this in practice in certain countries and sectors. 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. 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. It pays to act now to secure the long term," says Professor McGlade. The European Environment Agency is based in Copenhagen. The countries covered by its report are the EU 25 (Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom) and, Bulgaria, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Romania and Turkey. Related link:

The full report,including country reports (Section C), may be seen here