Tackling the environmental Crisis- An EU’s Perspective on Enabling Change

The European Studies Organization Social Policy Paper.

Climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution, deforestation, overfishing, soil degradation, urbanization, and resource depletion. These are some of are some of the toughest challenges the European Union (EU) together with its global partners are facing in the environmental sphere. This paper seeks to address the environmental concerns emanating from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) whilst providing a historical overview of EU environmental policies.

Amongst the numerous environmental issues the world is currently facing, one of the most significant is climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates that the global temperature has already increased by 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2021) Extreme weather events, the rise of sea level, and food shortages are just a few of the severe effects humanity will experience if global warming exceeds the 1.5°C limit. Several scholars have argued that pollution remains one of the most prevalent factors in today’s environmental disasters. (United Nations, 2019) Unfortunately, different types of pollution such as air and water pollution exist albeit these are interdependent and therefore actions directed to one may have an indirect effect on others. . Research has shown that the complete reversal of the long-term effects of pollution may only be achieved in millions of years and therefore today’s global agenda focuses more on prevention rather than reversal. (Waters, et al., 2016) Amongst the large array of toxins that pollute the environment, lead, pesticides and plastic are amongst the most common as a consequence of the energy and transportation industry.

Additionally, the diminishing supply of natural resources is another major environmental issue. One of the major environmental problems on a global level is the rapid depletion of resources which is outgrowing the current supply hence creating a situation of unsustainability. Given that natural resources are finite, studies have shown that the occurrence of energy crises is not a matter of if but rather a matter of when. (Mirchi, et al., 2012) Many natural resources emit substances that contribute to climate change. Climate change and global warming are a consequence of the unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels which is one of the main contributions in greenhouse gas emissions. (GhG emission) In response to the latter all stakeholders from individuals to businesses and governments are working to switch to renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, biogas, and geothermal energy. It is unfortunate that today’s society has presented a risk to several ecosystems such as the hindering of pollination and overdevelopment emanating from unchecked industrialisation, which is a major concern for the agricultural sector, as well as the destruction of coral reefs through certain methods of fishing and land reclamation. (VanHoey, et al., 2006) (Potts, et al., 2010)

The main global cooperation that tackles environmental issues is the United Nations through the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are a worldwide agreement that addresses the world’s most pressing issues in order the find solutions to combat such obstacles being faced globally The SDGs were proposed by the United Nations (UN) at the 2012, United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. The purpose of this initiative was to establish a set of global objectives relating to the economic, social, and political issues that humanity is currently facing. The SDGs were developed by the UN using its most extensive participation process, in which10 million people from all over the world participated in the consultation process to contribute their opinions to the 2030 Agenda’s development. Over the course of three years, negotiations, prioritisation, and groupings took place in order to reduce the initial list of over 300 proposed goals to 17 goals for the years lasting between 2015 and 2030The 17 goals prioritised prosperity, the people, the earth, the economy, society, and the environment. These goals replaced the 8 Millennium Development Goals.

A vast number of the SDGs are targeted to combat environmental obstacles. The first is SDG 6: “Clean Water and Sanitation”. This target focuses on water scarcity, an obstacle affecting more than 40% of the population. The goal aims to ensure access to clean and affordable drinking water for every living being SDG 7: “Affordable and Clean Energy”, aims to significantly increase the proportion of renewable energy in the global supply of energy, Another goal is SDG 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”, targeted at providing access to sustainable transport systems, and strengthening efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage. Moreover, Goal 12: “Responsible Consumption and Production”, aims to achieve environmentally sound management of chemicals and waste, significantly reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling, and reuse, and encourage businesses, especially large ones, to adopt sustainable practices and incorporate sustainability information into their reporting cycle.

There are three goals which explicitly pertain to the environment, these include, goals 13, 14, and 15. SDG 13: “Climate Change” calls for incorporating climate change mitigation measures into national planning and initiatives. With the current rise of sea temperatures, SDG 14: “Life Below Water”, focuses on managing and protecting marine and coastal ecosystems as well as preventing and reducing all forms of marine pollution. Since human life depends on the earth, SDG 15: “Life on Land” is crucial. It aims to put an end to deforestation, restore degraded forests, battle desertification, improve degraded land and soil, and encourage the adoption of sustainable management of all types of forests. It also calls for taking prompt and major action to lessen the deterioration of natural ecosystems.

The emergence of environmental concerns in the European Union (EU) dates back to the early 1970s, when environmental degradation and pollution first attracted the attention of the general public. Since then, a number of regulations and policies have been put into place by the EU to safeguard the environment and advance sustainable development. This is evidently seen through the signing of the Stockholm Declaration, in 1972 by the EU Member States. This Declaration recognized the value of environmental preservation and laid out guidelines for environmental management. The establishment of the European Environment Agency in 1990, disseminates data on the state of the environment and aids in the formulation of policy.

The foundation of EU environmental policy is grounded on the idea of sustainable development, which seeks to satisfy existing needs without compromising the capacity of future generations to satisfy their own. Both the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union uphold this notion. Moreover, the Environmental Liability Directive, which was implemented in 2004, is one of the most important pieces of EU environmental legislation as it mandates that companies should prevent, mitigate, and pay for any environmental harm their operations may cause.

The 2000-adopted Water Framework Directive is another significant legislation. The foundation for the protection of inland and coastal waterways, including rivers, lakes, and groundwater, was established by this regulation. By 2027, all bodies of water must be in “good ecological status” in all EU Member States. The EU has taken an active role in combatting climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The largest carbon market in the world was created in 2005 with the creation of the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). It limits emissions from certain industries and allows businesses to exchange emission permits.

Furthermore, the Paris Agreement, intends to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels and to continue efforts to keep it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. By 2030, the EU has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% from 1990 levels. The European Commission is responsible for enforcing EU environmental law, and it has the authority to file lawsuits against Member States that disobey EU regulations. A significant part of enforcing EU environmental legislation has also been performed by the European Court of Justice, which has rendered a number of significant decisions on problems like waste management and air pollution, thus enabling businesses to exchange emission permits.

Finally, it should be noted that the EU has a long history of addressing environmental concerns and advancing sustainable development. It has established a variety of laws to safeguard the environment and fight climate change, and its environmental strategy is founded on the idea of sustainable development. International accords that the EU has entered into, and its enforcement mechanisms serve as evidence of the organization’s dedication to environmental preservation. The environment is strongly linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as it aids the endangered ecosystems and increases the supply of natural resources for economic growth and human well-being. Consequently, the European Union has long sought for the prioritization of the environment through policies and initiatives to safeguard the fauna and flora across the EU27.

Climate change is one of the main issues being faced by the EU and the rest of the globe to the point where one of the SDGs is centred on climate action and requires States to take immediate action to address climate change and its effects. (United Nations – Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2023) What action has the EU taken in this matter? To achieve climate neutrality by 2050, the EU has set a lofty goal that calls for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 when compared to the levels present in 1990. Furthermore, the EU has put laws in place to encourage the use of renewable energy, boost energy efficiency, and lower emissions from industry and transportation. (Council of the EU, 2020) Interlinked with the latter is the preservation of nature and biodiversity which is well explained through SDG 15: Life on Land. To preserve biodiversity and habitats, the EU established the Natura 2000 network creating Special Protected Areas which encircles around 18% of the EU’s territory. The EU has also introduced the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, which aims to promote sustainable agriculture and forestry, decrease pollution and repair damaged ecosystems.

By moving the EU’s economy towards a circular model, the Circular Economy Action Plan seeks to encourage a more sustainable use of resources and decrease waste. This paradigm is founded on an array of ideas such as minimizing pollution and waste, preserving resources, and regenerating natural systems. This is strongly related to several SDGs especially Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. In addition, the EU has developed an EU Ecolabel which is a voluntary label covering an extensive number of products used to identify goods and services with a lower impact on the environment. In July 2021, the EU’s Single Use Plastics Directive came into force banning a number of single-use plastic products such as straws and cutlery. In addition, the Directive binds Member States to decrease their use of other single-use plastic products such as plastic food containers and balloon sticks amongst others. (European Commission, 2023)

Providing everyone with access to cheap, dependable, sustainable, and modern energy is a key component of another crucial SDG which the European Union is putting up unprecedented work. An ongoing program of €95.5 Billion is Horizon Europe which is a flagship research and innovation program geared to providing financial aid for the interdisciplinary study of several areas including energy. As Horizon 2020 has been launched fairly recently, it is too early to look into specific achievements in this sector, but a number of energy-related projects have been financed such as InnoEnergy, SET-Plan, CHEETAH and FLEXICIENCY. The infamous European Green Deal is a major initiative which is important for the EU to achieve the targets incorporated in SDG 7. The initiative puts particular attention on renewable energy and energy efficiency albeit other targets relating to environmentally friendly transport and circular economy are presents. The EU has set ambitious yet manageable targets which would place it as a role model in the area. Some of these targets are achieving 32% renewable energy by 2030, reduce energy consumption by a minimum of 32.5%, increase the share of electric transport by 30% amongst many others. (The European Parliament and Council of the European Union, 2018)

In conclusion, due to the vast number of initiatives and programs that the European Union has implemented to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, it is impossible to cover all of them in this policy paper. However, as has been demonstrated above, the EU’s efforts to protect the environment in as many ways as possible is unquestionable. Hence, we must now turn our eyes on the Member States to follow up on their commitments so that tomorrow’s world will be better than the one we enjoy today.

  • Council of the EU, 2020. Long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategy of the European Union and its Member States, Zagreb: European Union.
  • European Commission, 2023. Circular economy action plan. [Online] Available at: https://environment.ec.europa.eu/strategy/circular-economy-action-plan_en [Accessed 08 April 2023].
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2021. Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying – IPCC, Geneva: IPCC Press Office.
  • Mirchi, A. et al., 2012. World Energy Balance Outlookand OPEC Production Capacity: Implications for Global Oil Security. Energies, 5(1), pp. 2626-2651.
  • Potts, S. G. et al., 2010. Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 25(6), pp. 345-353.
  • The European Parliament and Council of the European Union, 2018. Directive (EU) 2018/2022 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2018 amending Directive 2012/27/EU on energy efficiency, Brussels: Official Journal of the European Union.
  • United Nations – Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2023. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. [Online] Available at: https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal13 [Accessed 07 April 2023].
  • United Nations, 2019. Global Environmental Outlook, Cambridge: United Nations.
  • VanHoey, G. et al., 2006. Integrative, regional assessment of bottom trawling impact on benthic habitats in the east Atlantic. American Fisheries Society Symposium, 41(1), pp. 1-17.
  • Waters, C. N. et al., 2016. The Anthrocopocene is functionally and stratigically distinct from the Holocene. Science, 351(6269), p. 137.
  • The European Parliament and Council of the European Union, 2018. Directive (EU) 2018/2022 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2018 amending Directive 2012/27/EU on energy efficiency, Brussels: Official Journal of the European Union.
  • United Nations, 2019. Global Environmental Outlook, Cambridge: United Nations.
  • United Nations – Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2023. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. [Online] Available at: https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal13 [Accessed 07 April 2023].

Writers: Nicholas Borg , Lucienne Gafa and Nicole Sciberras Bray

Editors: Nicole Sciberras Bray and Nicholas Borg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s