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| Research Challenges

Groundbreaking events, such as the United Nations-backed Rio Earth Summit on Environment and Development, in 1992, and the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development a decade later, show that policy-makers recognise the grave challenges that lie ahead in preserving the planet’s fragile environment.

One of today’s environmental challenges is to find ways of strengthening the scientific and socio-economic wherewithal to help authorities make decisions and produce sustainable development strategies which are suitable in any context throughout the EU.

Past environmental research challenges

The leading role of the EU in shaping the world’s response to global environmental problems has required a coordinated political effort by Member States. This coordinated approach has also underpinned the Union’s environmental research programmes.  

Since the early 1970s, the EU has worked to protect the environment through various Directives and legislation (see Milestones), including establishing legally enforceable standards for drinking water, power-plant emissions, and waste disposal in landfills and at sea. Such actions were reinforced by evidence put together by European researchers via the Union’s early research initiatives – like the consecutive Environment Research Programmes from 1973 to 1990, and the EU Framework Programmes (FP) for research from 1991 through to the present, which included specific environment-related chapters. Emphasis in the first FPs was placed on the need to understand the extent of the environmental problems faced.

Legislation, combined with policy measures and awareness-raising efforts to promote environmentally friendly solutions, and a growing number of voluntary agreements with industry, has made major contributions to cleaning up Europe’s air, rivers, land and seas, as well as the cities where the majority of Europeans live. Such Directives include those produced in 1975 on the quality of bathing water and in 1978 on fresh waters and fish life, as well as Directives on the conservation of bird life, pollution controls for large combustion plants, Natura 2000, and ambient air quality, to name but a few.

EU research policy has also boosted development of Europe’s world-class environmental technologies industry, often spearheaded by dynamic small and medium-sized enterprises. It has also backed research projects in a wide range of fields, many of them reflected in the Themes on this website.

Initiatives, such as the 1991 EU study of stratospheric ozone depletion in the northern hemisphere, proved instrumental in shaping policy in the lead up to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The Archeo evaluation project – started in 1996 under the Fourth Framework Programme for research (1994-1998) – provided strong evidence of the growing problem of urban pollution in Europe, later culminating in the launch of the Theseo ozone experiment in 1998. Another example of leading research which is continuing to provide valuable scientific data is CarboEurope – a project launched in 2000, during the Fifth Framework Programme (1998-2002), to study the carbon balance in the environment. 

Challenges met by EU research today

It is widely accepted that meeting the needs of the future depends on how well Europe and the rest of the world balances its social, economic and environmental goals when making decisions today.

Research carried out under consecutive EU research Framework Programmes has addressed sustainable development, in particular, and environmental issues, in general, in a number of different contexts. Broadly speaking, the research activities addressed in the current research programmes (under FP6, 2002-2006) – and covered in greater depth in the Themes section of this website – are as follows:
  • The ways in which greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric pollutants affect climate, ozone depletion and carbon sinks (oceans, forests and soil), with particular attention to improving forecasts and possible mitigation options through, for example, providing better access to research facilities for climate change
  • The water cycle and soil-related aspects, especially looking at the impact of climate change on the hydro-cycle, interactions between land, ocean and atmosphere, distribution of groundwater and surface water, freshwater and wetland ecosystems, and scenarios, mitigation and management strategies for water (availability, demand, vulnerability, quality, etc.)
  • Understanding marine and terrestrial biodiversity to minimise the negative impact of human activities (relationships between society, the economy and biodiversity habitats), forecasting potential changes, studying the structures and mechanisms while assessing and managing the risks to biodiversity and ecosystems, as well as looking into conservation, mitigation and rehabilitation options for marine and terrestrial biodiversity
  • Mechanisms of Natural Disasters and Desertification such as seismic and volcanic activity – and how these tie in with climate change, land and soil degradation – and studying what science can do to help long-term forecasting of hydrogeological hazards, natural hazard monitoring, mapping and management, and to improve disaster preparedness and mitigation strategies
  • Strategies for sustainable land management, including integrated coastal zone management and assessment tools for measuring the impacts of agriculture and forestry on the environment, while looking at new technologies and integrated approaches to make these sectors more environmentally friendly
  • Systematic operational forecasting and modelling of climate change (atmospheric, terrestrial, marine-based) to improve understanding of extreme events, and to use data coming from the Global Monitoring for the Environment and Security (GMES) programme and other Global Observation Systems for the climate, oceans and terrestrial more effectively (see Themes)
  • Cross-cutting issues, such as putting together sustainable development concepts and tools for measuring the sustainability dimension on relevant policies, will also be investigated.


Green technologies

Technology as such can be a double-edged sword – providing better and faster ways to do things but also potentially adding to the Earth’s environmental burden. One important tool created by the EU – the Environment Technology Action Plan (ETAP) – is designed to promote development and deployment of ‘green technologies’. Environmental technologies, by definition, are those which “reduce pressures on our natural resources, improve the quality of life of European citizens, and stimulate economic growth”. The initiative aims to remove the many obstacles to these technologies finding their way into the market. They can play a crucial role in Europe's competitiveness in the context of 'sustainable globalisation'.

Environmental technologies also present a sizeable opportunity for European businesses – small and large – to conceive, develop and eventually roll out innovative ideas which will help Europe maintain its competitive edge. At the industrial level, ETAP proposes implementation of a technological certification system to guarantee the performance of innovations and reduce access time to the market. The research sector, too, must serve as a springboard for promoting environmental technologies. Under FP6, ETAP aims to reinforce calls for projects in the sustainable development and ecosystems priority.

The plan also recommends quickly setting up a technology platform for water supply and sanitation – crucial fields for the global market. (see also the Policy Framework page on this site and the Clean and Competitive brochure in the links)

Future challenges for EU research

Future EU research programmes will no doubt continue to include environmental and sustainable development issues as a matter of priority. As one team of researchers presents new findings solving an environmental problem, another uncovers a fresh research challenge which, thanks to EU research funding, can be investigated later. 

Improving knowledge on environment and health related issues is an example of a new challenge facing EU scientists. Take, for example, the growing number of allergy sufferers in Europe – European research has identified man-made atmospheric pollution as a major trigger here. A discovery of this kind sets in motion new research into the causes of the illness – pollution-reduction technology or mitigation techniques – and/or treatments for the problem, such as novel drugs and protective measures.

In June 2004, the EU published guidelines addressing the future of European research, entitled ‘Science and technology: the key to Europe’s future’. These guidelines are aimed at securing Europe’s leading role in research and technological development, while looking down the road at the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) which will run from 2007-2013.

They also aim to stimulate competitive R&D within the Union, especially in basic research, where the idea of creating a European ‘agency’ to promote fundamental research was first raised. The proposal advocates, among other things, joint research activities supporting industrial policy, and that further effort should be put into developing research infrastructures and boosting the numbers of skilled researchers in key sectors such as security and space.

In the lead up to FP7, the Commission intends to identify the topics on which European research should focus in the future, which could indeed include a number of pressing sustainable development issues.


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