The pan-European environment: glimpses into an uncertain future

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The main challenge that those responsible for designing environmental policies face today is ensuring that they uphold longer-term sustainability goals. The aims of sustainable development require us to take decisions today that allow us to ‘meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (WCED, 1987).

However, such decisions will necessarily have to be taken against the backdrop of an uncertain future — uncertainty about how current and future environmental challenges may unfold, about what setting future geo-political and economic
developments may provide, about what future technological breakthroughs may bring, and about what future cultural preferences and societal needs may be. These and similar uncertainties open up a myriad of plausible future pathways and possible response options from which to choose, and thus complicate robust planning and the taking of sound decisions.

However, such uncertainty about future developments is not new. Who could have guessed, fifty years ago when much of the world was locked into the ‘cold war’, that the Treaties of Rome signed by six Western European countries would evolve into a political union of 27 Member States across Europe today? And who would have imagined twenty years ago that the Berlin Wall would fall so swiftly in 1989; or expect — for that matter any of the subsequent rapid political, social and economic changes that occurred throughout the former Soviet Union and its satellite nations? And some forty years ago, who would have expected environmental concerns, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, to feature so prominently on the international policy agenda? (2) And yet, these developments have drastically altered the face of the pan-European region (see Figure 1.1) and the way its environmental policies have evolved.

And, arguably, the rate of change continues to be staggering, as new alliances are forged, markets open further and a new spectrum of environmental, social and economic opportunities and challenges emerge. While there are still huge disparities for example, in income (see Table 1.1) — the countries and economies of the pan-European region seem to be growing ever closer. The issue of globalisation, in particular, appears to be fuelling these trends, leading to high levels of connectivity and interdependence between nations in cultural, social, technological, economic, environmental and political terms. These and other developments, which seem to be accelerating and increasing in complexity, underline the need to prepare for the future. And, as noted above, the uncertainty of how future developments may play out clouds the design of robust and sustainable approaches for dealing with current and future environmental challenges. 

This report aims to contribute to the discussion about plausible future developments and stimulate medium to long-term thinking in the context of environmental policy-making. It sketches some key environmental concerns for the pan-European region based on EEA’s recent Europe’s environment — The fourth assessment (EEA, 2007ª). Where available, forward-looking indicators are used to illustrate possible future developments — although such indicators are often somewhat limited in scope and few are available. However, one should bear in mind that future developments cannot be predicted. Thus, as well as introducing projected trends and their implications, some of the major uncertainties that surround future developments are highlighted. For this, the report builds on a wide range of existing forward-looking studies that have become available for the pan-European region during the last few years. To our knowledge, this is the first such review that systematically includes assessments not only for Western and Central Europe, but also for South Eastern Europe and Eastern Europe, Caucasus, Central Asia. It shows that across the region a variety of scenarios exist that explore a range of uncertainties and provide some glimpses into the future.

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