EEA Signals 2012 – Building the future we want

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

Greening our economy

Most people will remember 2011 as a year of financial turmoil, the Japanese earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster, country bailouts in Europe and mass protests linked to the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Spanish Indignados. Only a few will remember that it was also the year scientists discovered more than 18 000 new species living on our planet. Even fewer can name one species that was declared extinct.

At first sight, the fate of threatened species might seem a world apart from the economy. Upon closer examination, however, we start to understand the connections between the two. The ‘good health’ of natural systems is a precondition for the ‘good health’ of our social and economic systems. Can one say that a society is thriving when it is exposed to air and water pollution and endures related health problems? Equally, can a society ‘function’ if a large proportion is unemployed or cannot make ends meet?

Despite gaps and uncertainties in our understanding, we can see that our world is changing. After 10 000 years of relative stability, the average global temperature is increasing. Although the European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions are declining, fossil fuels release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than our land and oceans can absorb. Some regions are more vulnerable to the potential impacts of climate change — and these are often the countries least prepared to adapt to new climatic conditions.

With more than seven billion of us living on the planet, humans clearly have a role in steering and accelerating this change. In fact, our current consumption and production levels may be damaging the environment to the point that we risk making our home uninhabitable to many species — including ourselves. Many people in developing countries aspire to have lifestyles similar to those in developed countries, which could put additional pressure on our natural systems.

We are losing global biodiversity at a rate never before seen in history. Extinction rates may be up to 1 000 times higher than the historical background rate. The destruction of habitats is one of the main reasons.

Although the total forest area has been increasing in Europe in recent decades, globally it is a different story. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that every year about 13 million hectares of the world’s forests (roughly equivalent to the size of Greece) are cut down and converted to other land uses, such as cattle grazing, mining, farming or urban development. Forests are not the only ecosystems under threat. Many other natural habitats are at risk because of human activities.

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