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UN urges Europe to boost environmental ambition to fight planetary crisis

The Cover of The Seventh Pan-European Environmental Assessment
  • New assessment reveals progress on air quality and protected areas, but calls for urgent action to tackle emissions, waste, pollution and biodiversity loss 

  • A circular economy and sustainable infrastructure offer solutions 

Despite progress in certain areas, governments in the pan-European region must show far greater ambition in tackling climate change, protecting ecosystems and managing and tackling waste and pollution, stresses a new UN assessment launhed today.  

The 7th pan-European environmental assessment, was today presented at the 9th Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference, the United Nations’ highest body on environmental policy in the region – covering 54 countries across the European Union, European Free Trade Association members, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. 

The joint report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) calls for greater action to tackle the triple planetary crisis affecting climate, nature and pollution, whose effects are taking their toll more than ever on the lives and wellbeing of people in the pan-European region.    

“The findings of this assessment almost halfway through Agenda 2030, must be a wake-up call for the region,” said UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova. “The historic drought the region faced this summer announced what we should expect in years to come and shows that there is no more time to lose. As highlighted in the report, the UN has developed multiple tools and approaches to cut pollution, step-up environmental protection, reduce resource use and foster the shift to a circular economy. Their implementation must be significantly accelerated. This will require urgent and bold political commitment and behavioural changes from all of us before it is too late”.   

“We know what we need to do, and we must act together. As citizens feel the pinch and are facing higher energy bills than ever before, as they see record temperatures and their water reservoirs shrink, and the continent is confronted with other profound challenges, countries must show that there is a plan,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen. The science is unequivocal. The only way forward is to secure a clean and green future. “This assessment can be a guide for lowering emissions, a healthier environment for people and for nature, and better waste management and cleaner air”.  

Greater efforts needed to tackle air pollution 

Some progress has been made in the past years through the implementation of policies to tackle air pollution, but increased effort is needed, as air pollution remains the greatest health risk in the region. The report notes that between 2009 and 2018, 41 European countries recorded a 13% reduction in premature deaths due to long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Yet PM2.5 concentration continued to exceed the 2005 World Health Organization air quality guideline of 10 µg/m3  — 10 millionths of a gram per cubic metre of air — and the subsequent stricter 2021 limit of 5 µg/m3 across the entire region.  

In response, the assessment calls for additional measures, including the use and further sharpening of the best available techniques to prevent emissions of particulate matter, NOx and hydrocarbons by the industry, and to reduce emissions from traffic by implementing emission standards known as Euro-6 and Euro-7. All countries should align ambient air quality standards with latest WHO guidelines. 

Rising GHG emissions must be slashed 

While all countries in the pan-European region have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, net emissions are still rising. Reductions, mostly achieved in the western part of Europe (2014–2019), are offset by the increase in emissions in the rest of the region.  

The use of renewables increased in 29 countries in 2013-2017, but the region still largely relies on fossil fuels – accounting for some 78% of total final energy consumption. The share of renewables in the energy mix is rising more slowly than overall energy consumption in the region.  

Governments should therefore eliminate or reform harmful subsidies and incentives (all countries in the region continue to implement fossil fuel subsidies) and develop effective incentives to deepen decarbonization by shifting promotion of investments towards renewable energy. 

Cooperation remains key to address water challenges 

The region’s river basins, lakes and aquifers are subject to multiple stresses, and climate change is delivering additional challenges for freshwater quantity and quality such as floods, droughts, water-borne diseases and biodiversity changes in aquatic ecosystems. Pollution and urban and industrial wastewater discharges remain significant and persistent organic contaminants are of public health concern. Together with reinforced measures to conserve water, improve efficiency of its use (such as through precision agriculture in irrigated crop production) and to harness nature-based solutions for water retention basins, the potential of non-conventional water sources such as recycled water should be explored.  

Threatened land and marine ecosystems require concerted action 

The status of ecosystems remains a cause for concern, with no evidence of a clear positive overall trend in the region, warns the assessment. Protected areas in the pan-European region have almost tripled over the past 30 years and an overall increase in forest area in the UNECE region of 33.5 million has been observed. Governments should ensure that trends in forest areas remain positive and take additional measures to safeguard the remaining primary and intact forests and their ecological functionality.  

While marine protected areas have grown in area by 66% and terrestrial ones by 22% over the past five years, overall biodiversity loss continues to occur. Governments should eliminate or reform subsidies and incentives for products and activities that lead to biodiversity loss and develop incentives to mainstream biodiversity conservation across sectors and policies.  

A circular and a more efficient economy will help address growing waste and resource use  

Even where a strong political commitment for a circular economy exists, such as in the European Union and other Western European countries, the amount of waste generated continues to grow. Recycling rates differ significantly among countries and are particularly low in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Municipal waste recycling rates above 45% exist only in a few EU countries and Switzerland. E-waste collection and recycling are highly deficient across all subregions.  

In response, the assessment urges governments to step up waste prevention in production and consumption and repair, refurbishment and remanufacturing, including through financial incentives such as tax relief. A pan-European e-waste management partnership would enable the recovery of valuable resources. 

Over the past half-century, the extraction of minerals has tripled globally, with the extraction and processing of natural resources accounting for over 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress and about 50% of climate change impacts. Governments in the region should adopt a circular – or resource efficient – economy approach and strengthen management of raw materials, including for example through the application of the UN Framework Classification for Resources and the UN Resource Management System.  

Strengthened disaster resilience required  

About 65% of the region’s population is covered by local disaster risk reduction strategies. Only 15 countries in the region reported that all their local authorities are implementing such strategies under SDG target 13.1; while 23 countries – which jointly represent a quarter of the region’s population – do not report on that target. 

Green financing needed 

As a share of GDP, public spending on environmental protection (with a maximum of around 0.8%) is much lower than environmental tax revenues, implying that revenues from environmental taxes are not earmarked for reducing environmental damage. Governments should therefore favour the development of green finance and consider spending on environmental protection in the wider context of environmental and public finance.  

Sustainability must be at the heart of infrastructure development  

Sustainable infrastructure investment has been recognized as one of the ways of achieving the greatest positive impact in the post-COVID pandemic recovery. However, most countries in the region have yet to develop mechanisms to incorporate sustainability considerations (such as climate risk) and externality accounting (e.g., the cost of pollution, ecosystem services, or biodiversity protection) into the cost-benefit analysis of large infrastructure projects. Existing tools offered by UNECE and UNEP can remedy this.  

Education for Sustainable Development and a shared data system can strengthen environmental governance 

The environmental governance system in the pan-European region remains fragmented in terms of applied policies, institutions, the harmonization of legislation and participation in multilateral environmental agreements. Gaps also remain in the implementation of good environmental governance, including in relation to public participation, transparency, responsiveness, effectiveness and efficiency.  

Among solutions, the assessment points to further capitalising on the potential of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) to endow populations with capacities to play an active role in environmental governance.  

The assessment also notes that while, the final review report on the establishment of the Shared Environmental Information System found that such national systems have been successfully established in all countries in Europe and Central Asia, that they vary in form and use and remaining gaps need to be addressed.  

A factsheet with more report findings to accompany this press release can be downloaded here

The 9th Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference (5-7 October, Nicosia, Cyprus) is hosted by the Government of Cyprus with secretariat support from UNECE, in cooperation with UNEP, OECD and other partners. 

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