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image European Research News Centre > Environment > European excellence
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image image image Date published: 28/08/02
  image European excellence
RTD info 34
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  Europe has been a leading player in the vast international movement of the past two decades for sustainable Earth governance. It has been and is continuing to be a motor in the development of global environmental programmes and networks, and in particular in the major negotiations initiated by the Rio Summit and the Kyoto Protocol. This active influence is rooted in a huge and growing effort in the field of legislation and research as a result of which Europe is one of the world’s best centres of excellence today in the field of the environment and sustainable development.
   
     
   

This growing concern about environmental issues in the European Union got off to a somewhat timid start in the 1970s. This was the time of the first European directives on subjects such as the quality of drinking water, limits on the polluting emissions of thermal power stations and waste disposal management.

Horizontal spread

Environmental awareness gradually spread to increasingly varied fields, such as agricultural policy, fisheries, transport, energy, enterprise policy, health and consumer protection. An Environment Directorate-General was set up to coordinate an overall vision, headed by a Commissioner with specific responsibility for these issues - at present Margot Wallström of Sweden.

The Environment DG has become an essential element of the Commission, charged with the horizontal management and promotion of the principles of sustainable development policy. It works in co-operation with all the other operational services charged with incorporating the sustainability dimension in their activities.

In the mid-1990s, the Union also set up the European Environment Agency, based in Copenhagen. Its task is to collect and analyse all the data and results of studies on sustainable development in Europe.

Research: a growing priority

Another key dimension of European policy for sustainable development is research. The Joint Research Centre was the first to take the initiative in this field, undertaking valuable work on the use of satellite data.
The Union’s science and technology policy, aimed at active co-operation between teams of scientists in the Member States, has also expanded considerably, in particular during the three successive Framework Programmes for research and development of the 1990s. At the same time, the environment came to occupy a place of increasing importance within these programmes.

The Fifth Framework Programme (1998-2002) allocated a budget of almost €3.1 billion to research under the six key actions of the Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development programme, the working themes of which are set out in the table opposite. A total of 1 177 transnational research projects involving thousands of scientific teams have generated a considerable body of knowledge and know-how.

The environmental dimension is lasting and, what is more, is present in many other areas of the Fifth Framework Programme, such as the Growth and Sustainable Development programme. A great many research projects under the International Co-operation programme (INCO) also have a significant environmental dimension, as do research actions with Southern countries and the favoured scientific relations the Union is developing with candidate countries as well as with Russia and the former Soviet states which are facing often major environmental problems.


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Turning point at Gothenburg

For more than two years now, the European Union has pursued a process of reflection and strategic structuring designed to give a coherent direction to its policies. In June 2000, the Lisbon Summit confirmed the priority awarded to creating a knowledge-based society. The Gothenburg Summit subsequently declared a need for all the Union’s policies to promote the interests of sustainable development.

To ensure this operational strategic option will be applied as quickly as possible, approaches and sectors of a nature able to yield significant results in the field of sustainable development have been identified. All Community policies must in future be based on an integrated evaluation of their likely economic, social and environmental impact (see box Sustainability Impact Assessment).

At Union level - and in fields such as industry, agriculture, transport and fisheries - any new economic initiative, technological change or legislative framework must include an analysis of the effects in terms of climate change, the use of clean technologies, the rational use of renewable resources, protection of biodiversity, waste limitation, health protection and social and regional equity.

This European strategy for sustainable development has also become an essential element of the Union’s external policy as will be clearly announced at the Johannesburg Summit. Europe is committed to taking into account the specific problems of the developing countries which are often similar to our own, but set in a much more difficult economic and social context.

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Sustainability Impact Assessment

This term refers to a new tool designed to improve the quality and coherence of any policy in terms of sustainable development.

Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) systematically measures the impact of a policy on the environment, the economy and the social dimension, and checks that all the latter are developing in a direction favourable to sustainability.

This new methodological approach therefore requires the development and use of the specialised knowledge that is already - and in the future even more so - incorporated in the Community research priorities of the Sixth Framework Programme. Here are some examples:

  • Economic research: evaluation of macro- and micro-economic impact, in particular in terms of employment and competitiveness; cost estimation of policies, especially ‘external’ costs; impact in terms of innovation and the development of clean technologies; repercussions for the market and world trade in goods and services and on prices.
  • Social sciences: impact on social cohesion and employment; compatibility with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights; equal opportunities; improvement of working conditions; progress in reducing exclusion and poverty.
  • Environment: potential positive or negative effects of actions on climate change and biodiversity; effect on water, air and soil quality; assessment of sustainability limits beyond which irreparable damage is done to ecosystems; potential harmful effects on health.

http://idpm.man.ac.uk/sia-trade/

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Marine ecosystem

Marine ecosystem
Inventory of practical and biological data on deep-water fish threatened by the fishing industry and whose reduction in numbers is jeopardising the balance of underwater systems.

Developing deep-water fisheries - 13 partners, 10  countries

Website

Plant biodiversity

Plant biodiversity
The observation, measurement and comparison of the effects of biodiversity and the consequences of its loss throughout the European continent, in all climates and at all latitudes.

Biodepth - 9 partners, 8 countries

Website

Climate and society

Climate and society
Climate change does not only affect the natural environment. What is the potential socio-economic impact of climate change, especially at regional level? Four scenarios as an aid to reflection (and possibly decision-making) on the interaction between climate change and socio-political functioning.

Acacia - 39 partners, 12 countries

Website

Carbon cycle

Carbon cycle
To reduce greenhouse gases it is necessary to know the real storage capacities of forest ecosystems. But how to measure them? 190 scientists from various fields are developing methodologies and comparing results, in Europe and tropical regions, to permit an evaluation of the phenomenon.

CarboEurope - 69 partners, 15 countries

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Climate change

Climate change
Mountain lakes do not escape the effects of air pollution. By studying these sensitive ecosystems it is possible to understand climate change and trace developments over centuries.

Molar - 23 partners, 13 countries

Website

Purifying plants

Purifying plants
Many research projects are studying the possibility of using plants in the service of the environment (plants able to break down pollutants, fuel or lubricants of plant origin, etc.). One such project showed that when Arabidopsis halleri is planted on sites contaminated by heavy metals it is able to absorb some of the pollutants.

Metallophytes - 10 partners, 6 countries

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Sustainable energy

Sustainable energy
The use of renewable energy sources is vital to preserving the environment. But their use must be rationalised and integrated into traditional electricity distribution networks, in particular through models which forecast energy demands.

Care and Morecare - 6 partners, 4 countries

Website

Management of natural risks

Management of natural risks
The combined use of satellite pictures and other data allows researchers to assess the damage caused by natural disasters and to give advance warning. The Ispra Joint Research Centre is looking in particular at floods and forest fires (here, a map of the fires which destroyed almost 100 000 hectares in Grève in 1997-98).

Institute of Space Applications, Joint Research Centre - Ispra

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Ecosystems

Ecosystems
Thousands of picoplankton, about which very little is known, make up a large part of plant plankton. These minute organisms - less than 3µ in size - have a ‘minimal’ genome and should be able to tell us more about the ecosystem in which they develop and even about possible global changes. Here, the epiflourescent picture shows various populations of picoplankton.

Picodiv - 5 partners, 5 countries

©CNRS, D.Marie Roscoff

Website

Desertification

Desertification
For the past decade multidisciplinary research groups have been studying desertification in the Mediterranean countries and developing measures adapted to different situations in an attempt to combat it.

Medalus - 30 partners, 10 countries

Website

Humid zones

Humid zones
Europe’s humid zones (marshes, peat bogs, deltas) are a unique resource of animal and plant life. By co-operating closely with humid zone managers, scientists are making available knowledge and management tools producing tangible effects.

Protowet - 5 partners, 5 countries

Website

Sustainable cities

Sustainable cities
How to make cities viable for all, by combining air quality, employment and economic health, quality and reliability of transport, etc. Research in the field and decision-making aids for urban development.

Spartacus - 5 partners, 4 countries

Website

Ozone hole

Ozone hole
Since 1991, hundreds of European and US chemistry and stratospheric chemistry experts have worked on research programmes using highly sophisticated instruments to study the ‘ozone hole’ over the Antarctic.

Theseo - An impressive number of scientists from all over Europe are working in co-operation with teams from the United States on this project.

Website

Warming

Warming
Could climate change cause melting of the permafrost - the permanently frozen layer of subsoil in mountainous or cold Northern regions? The threat is being taken very seriously by researchers worldwide.

Pace - 17 partners, 7 countries

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Tropical forest

Tropical forest
Malaysian and Filipino researchers, in partnership with French, British and Finnish teams, are developing forest-care techniques designed to restore the tropical forests. Mycorrhizal fungi, for example, have been introduced into poor soils to favour the growth of Dipterocarps (here, introduction to the roots under nursery conditions).

Dipterocarp domestication and harnessing mycorrhizal symbiosis - 5 partners, 5 countries including Malaysia and the Philippines

Website

Environmental management

Environmental management
How do the public view climate change? What energy policies do they envisage to live in a more sustainable local environment? What sacrifices are they prepared to make to preserve the place in which they live? The evaluations by human science researchers in seven European towns show the importance of public participation in environmental management.

Ulysses - 10 partners, 8 countries

Website

Oceanography

Oceanography
Geostar, a complex and highly capable ‘machine’ with a remote-controlled shuttle, a laboratory station able to remain for one year at a depth of almost 400 metres, and a continuous communication link with the surface, enables scientists to study life under the most extreme conditions.

Geostar - 3 partners, 3 countries

Website

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