A 23 October agreement by European Union (EU) leaders to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions is a good example of developing and implementing a needed long-term, sustainable environmental policy agenda for Europe. So says Hans Bruyninckx, executive director of the European Environment Agency (EEA), an EU agency.

The agreement, which targets a reduction by 2030 of EU domestic greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% below the 1990 level, also aims to increase the share of EU renewable energy to at least 27% by 2030. That agreement is part of a trend toward a ­longer-term agenda for the environment, Bruyninckx explained during a 30 October presentation on Europe’s 2050 environmental agenda at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D. C.

Other recent documents related to that trend include road maps for moving to a competitive ­low-­carbon economy in 2050, for a single European transport area, for a ­resource-­efficient Europe, and for energy. In addition, Bruyninckx said that the EU’s 7th Environmental Action Programme is a guiding document for his agency. That action program includes a goal that “in 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits.”

The framing of a 2050 environmental agenda in Europe has been “a major policy innovation” over the past 5−6 years that can help provide fundamentally different ways of approaching environmental concerns and could lead to a more sustainable environment, Bruyninckx said. The three core visions of a 2050 environmental agenda are a ­low-­carbon society, a “circular economy” where nothing is wasted, and ecosystem resilience that can deal with shocks and unexpected events and changes in the future, he said.

Bruyninckx added that current development and environmental protection efforts have been successful to a degree but are not sufficient for the long term. He applauded efforts that have reduced the proportion of people living in extreme poverty and said that all people—not just those in developed countries—deserve to live a decent life.

He also noted successes such as cutting industrial pollution and improving air and water quality. The “efficiency paradigm” of reducing pollution has worked well, Bruyninckx stated. However, he cautioned that with the Earth’s population expected to reach about 9 billion people by 2050, with an increase in ­middle-class consumers, and with what he labeled as unsustainable systems of production and consumption, the human environmental impact on the planet continues to create a strain on natural resource use. Between now and 2050, global gross domestic product in terms of purchasing power parity is expected to triple, and the use of natural resources could increase by 80%, he said.

“This is not really compatible with the idea of living well within the limits of the planet,” Bruyninckx said, noting that a long-term horizon and new policy approaches are crucial for dealing more effectively with the significant problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, and resource depletion, among others. “In the long run, on a finite planet, you cannot have a little bit of sustainability. The environment is a boundary condition, and so we will have to organize the social and the economic within that boundary condition.”

Since about 1990, there has been a dramatic decoupling between energy use, which has fallen substantially due in large part to efficiency efforts, and economic growth, which has increased by 40%, according to EEA data. However, that has not all been good news because resource use has remained fairly steady, Bruyninckx noted. “This [decoupling] is a major achievement. But the efficiency gains have not led to an overall decrease in resource use,” he said.

“We have been very successful in regulating efficiency, but is this the answer to the long-term natural resource limits on the planet?” he asked. “The sort of incremental institutionalism has worked quite well on a number of environmental issues, but it is not enough to get us to 2050 when we take a circular economy, ecosystem resilience, and a ­low-­carbon society as the goals that we need to reach.”

Bruyninckx held out hope that change can happen quickly to move toward implementing a ­longer-term environmental policy agenda for Europe. He cited as positive examples the changes in communication since the advent of the Internet and recent comments by United Nations Secretary General Ban ­Ki-moon and others calling for a green economy. “So,” Bruyninckx said, “things can change in a very short time period in very fundamental ways.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.