Looking to 2050: How Will Europe Meet Its Environmental & Economic Objectives?

October 7, 2015

Stephanie Ratte

By Stephanie Ratte, FES ’17

Last week, the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and the Governance, Environment and Markets (GEM) Initiative co-hosted Hans Bruyninckx, executive director of the European Environment Agency (EEA), for a look into Europe’s environmental trajectory over the next few decades. Speaking to the urgent challenges that Europe, and the world, will continue to face in the 21st century, Dr. Bruyninckx underscored the importance of a shift from a linear to a circular economy, the need for a holistic green economy, and the significance of “transitions thinking” in designing and driving policy innovations.

Informing Environmental Decision Making and Coordinating Information Across the EU

As an agency of the European Union (EU), the EEA is mandated to help its 33 member states and six cooperating countries through knowledge generation, information consolidation, and coordination on environmental and climate issues. With a network of more than 300 institutions across 39 European countries, the EEA is a robust network for environmental and policy data and analysis.

In March of this year, the EEA released “SOER 2015”: the European environment – state and outlook 2015 report, the most recent version of a comprehensive EEA analysis conducted every five years. SOER 2015 uses indicator-based assessments to track environmental performance in the EU and project future policy opportunities. With a look toward two target dates—2030 and 2050—the forward focus is part of the EEA’s work to understand how to achieve the EU’s 2050 “vision of living well within the limits of the planet.”

Circular Economy: A “Quantum Leap Forward” in Resource Efficiency

For Europe to meet this 2050 goal, Dr. Bruyninckx underscored the necessity of a transition away from the short lifetime of products to a more resource efficient model that accounts for the full life of materials used and products created, describing this circular economy as a potential “quantum leap forward” for sustainable resource use and efficiency. He suggested that since discussions of the circular economy are still often more conceptual than practical, we need to continue the push to actually apply these principles to how products are designed and used.

There are significant environmental gains to be made in improving product lifecycles, but this shift will require substantial leadership from the private sector, demand from consumers, and government support. Just last week Google announced a new partnership with the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation to “embed circular economic principles” into the company’s practices and products—a signal perhaps that companies in the U.S. are also seeing the benefits of working toward a circular model. Commitments like this are critical to driving momentum for this vision. Whether they will be able to bring about a transformative leap over the next few decades remains to be seen.

Encouraging a Systemic Transition

As Dr. Bruynickx noted, systemic challenges require systemic solutions. This means shifting the focus away from incremental efficiency gains toward fundamental transitions in behavior and infrastructure by 1) considering the “macro-direction” in which society is moving; 2) fostering technological, social, and economic innovations; and 3) understanding “lock-ins”—what locks society into unsustainable practices. While more immediate economic concerns often direct government action, he discussed the ways in which environmental policy can be a driver of innovation, pointing to the surge in patent applications in Europe from the environmental sector and the gains that green industries have made despite a recession.

The EEA’s vision is far-reaching and sets an important example for the U.S. Infrastructure investments and changes made today—particularly in energy and transportation—will be felt many decades from now. The political battles that hinder progress in environmental sustainability in the U.S. will continue to delay these necessary systemic shifts. With their sights set on 2050, the EEA is working to ensure that Europe’s short-term planning positions it on a path of long-term transition. If the U.S. cannot set the standard, at least they can follow it.