Environmental Indicator Report 2013 - Natural Resources and Human Well-Being in a Green Economy

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In 2010, The European environment — state and outlook 2010: synthesis (EEA, 2010d) emphasised the increasingly systemic nature of environmental challenges and highlighted the need for greening the economy. It argued that further resource efficiency gains have to be realised to ensure resilient ecosystems that can deliver the natural resources and ecosystem services that we depend on.

In 2012 the EEA initiated a series of annual environmental indicator reports aimed at analysing selected issues in more depth and preparing the ground for the next SOER, due in 2015. The indicator reports share a common format and they use — to the extent possible — established environmental indicators hosted by the EEA.

The first report in the series, the Environmental indicator report 2012, measured progress towards the green economy, focusing on two key aspects of the transition: resource efficiency and ecosystem resilience. Based on analysis of six environmental themes, it concluded that European environment policies appear to have had a clearer impact on improving resource efficiency than on maintaining ecosystem resilience. While improving resource efficiency remains necessary, it may not be sufficient to conserve the natural environment and the essential services it provides in support of economic prosperity and cohesion.

This Environmental indicator report 2013 extends the analysis of the green economy, focusing on the environmental pressures associated with resource use patterns and their impact on human health and well-being. Mapping the diverse connections between environmental change and human health impacts involves considerable conceptual complexities, and relies on a relatively fragmented evidence base.

For these reasons, the assessment in this report aims to be illustrative rather than comprehensive. Known health issues are linked to resource-use patterns and associated environmental pressures. Where relevant and possible, the analysis evaluates the distribution of impacts across society and identifies potential levers for action. Central to the analytical approach is the logic developed in the 2012 report, taking basic human needs (food, energy and water security, as well as housing demand) as the entry points for analysis.

The report is structured as follows:

Part 1 describes the policy background, the analytical approach and the indicators used. Referring to key analytical and policy frameworks at the global and national levels, it describes the evolution of ecosystem and well-being concepts. It also makes the case for integrated approaches to studying and tackling human exposure to multiple environmental pressures resulting from resource use. It argues that, in a green economy context, social equity needs to be enhanced by ensuring fair access to natural resources, sharing the benefits of nature, and securing a healthy living environment that protects society from pollution impacts.

Part 2 consists of four thematic assessments, focusing on food, water, energy and housing. It analyses the trends in demand and the corresponding supply mechanisms using, for example, consumption and production data and trade statistics. The environmental pressures arising from these resource use patterns are then described and interpreted in terms of human exposure and selected health and well‑being impacts.

Overall, the environmental pressures from resource use in Europe appear to be declining (most notably for water and energy), although large regional differences persist. Moreover, the absolute environmental burden of European consumption patterns remains considerable, with some aspects appearing unsustainable in the context of rapidly growing global demand. The resource use patterns are strongly interdependent, with bioenergy and food production, for example, competing for land, energy and water resources, and with different environmental feedback mechanisms operating simultaneously.

Europe's food demand and meat consumption appear rather stable, and the average increase in cereal yields points towards increasing resource productivity. At the same time, however, agricultural diversity appears to be diminishing, with 'high nature value' farming losing ground to more intensive farming systems. Biodiversity and amenity values of farmland are thus declining. As for possible health and well-being impacts of the current food system, the available data (for example on exposure to food and water contaminated with pesticides) are limited and not conclusive. The obesity crisis points at systemic challenges and potential co-benefits of consumption, lifestyle and environmental changes. Reducing the overall environmental impact of European agriculture would imply a fundamental shift towards more ecological approaches, such as organic farming, and an increase of overall resource efficiency in terms of external chemical inputs, water and energy use, land take and waste generation. CAP support and other measures could provide better incentives for such efficiency gains.

In the case of water, the overall abstraction rate is falling but there is considerable regional variation. Data on temporary breaches in drinking water supply are lacking, but acute water stress remains an issue in some (particularly southern European) regions. This situation is likely to be exacerbated by climate change. Water quality is generally improving, but again regional problems remain, particularly in the intensively farmed regions of lowland western Europe with high nutrient and pesticide loads. In addition, emerging chemicals pose a considerable, yet insufficiently understood risk. Governance mechanisms are increasingly based on a recognition that priority should be given to ensuring adequate allocations to ecosystems and basic human needs. Once these priorities have been met, the remaining resources should be distributed among sectors in a manner that delivers the greatest benefit to society. These principles are embodied in the Water Framework Directive, which requires Member States to ensure that all water bodies achieve 'good status' by 2015.

As for energy use, the indicators all point at a reduction of environmental pressures, with energy efficiency and renewable energy sources increasing, and emissions declining. This is reflected in a general decrease in the exceedances of exposure limits for air pollutants, with associated health benefits. Regional variation is also considerable in this case, however, and in absolute terms exposure to harmful pollution levels in urban areas remains high and continues to impact on human health. This is of particular concern in view of the general urbanisation trend and the ageing of the European population, which will increase both the exposure and vulnerability of the population. Climate change is an important long-term stress factor that can only be partially mitigated by the current greenhouse gas emission cuts. The globalised nature of energy resource flows and pollution necessitates a coordinated international response. During recent decades European governments have thus assumed an ever greater role in correcting incentives and reshaping the energy system.

The environmental pressures from housing are partly constructionrelated (e.g. mining, energy and water use, waste generation), but also include the use phase, with energy use for heating and transport being the main pressures. Changing housing demand and diffuse urban sprawl are of concern, mainly because of effects on landscape infrastructure, biodiversity and energy demand for uses such as heating and transport. Access to green spaces is a relevant factor for health and well-being, for which unfortunately no trend information is available.

Part 3 provides an integrated reflection on the interlinkages between environmental problems and (policy) challenges in addressing these problems. It commences with an overview of the trends across the resource categories and then reviews the opportunities for responding to these interdependent challenges.

The emerging overall picture is characterised by resource efficiency gains in some areas and generally reducing environmental pressures. But considerable health and well-being challenges exist. European consumption remains very resource-intensive, particularly when seen in a global perspective.

Viewed separately, each of the 'resource use systems' is subject to very different governance mechanisms, and hence different intervention options apply. Water provisioning is subject to market forces in a limited way, with the EU Water Framework Directive providing a comprehensive legislative framework at European level to ensure water security in terms of quantity and quality. In contrast, Europe's systems for producing and consuming energy have been largely shaped by market forces. Indeed, the security of fuel supplies depends to a high degree on the functioning of world markets. However, recognising the widespread environmental and human harm that the global energy system today causes, governments increasingly intervene to correct market incentives via taxation, emissions trading and incentives for renewable energy.

Food provisioning and resource use for housing take intermediate positions on the spectrum of government involvement. In the case of food provision, agricultural production and market mechanisms are strongly affected by policy interventions in the EU such as the Common Agricultural Policy. Negotiations in the World Trade Organization tend towards liberalisation, however, breaking down trade barriers and reducing protectionism. As for housing, access to construction materials and energy carriers is largely subject to free market forces, whereas urban development and construction itself are usually heavily regulated.

The interdependence of the resource-use systems highlighted in Parts 2 and 3 of the report introduces numerous trade-offs and co‑benefits into governance options, necessitating an integrated response. Spatial planning and land management emerge as key approaches for framing governance strategies capable of increasing resource efficiency, maintaining environmental resilience and maximising human well-being.

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