Reversing the climate crisis

It’s not too late to take decisive action on man-made climate change, writes Hans Bruyninckx.

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By Hans Bruyninckx

15 May 2019

Our planet is facing unprecedented challenges to its environment and climate, threatening our security and well-being. Yet it is not too late to take decisive action.

We can still reverse some of the negative trends, adapt to minimise harm and restore vital ecosystems.

To achieve long-term sustainability, we need to approach the environment, climate, economy and society as a single entity. Change has been a constant feature of our planet.

Its landmass, oceans, atmosphere, climate and life on earth have been continuously changing.


What makes these changes different from the past is the unprecedented pace and scale and the factors and drivers behind them.

Extreme events, such as storms, heatwaves, flooding and droughts have become our new reality.

Press headlines around the world point to a climate and environmental crisis, affecting the future of our species. The global climate is changing, and the change is man-made.

Our dependence on fossil fuels, our land-use practices and global deforestation are all increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, which in turn are changing the global climate.

It is also clear that climate change is affecting every corner of our planet, including Europe.

Some communities may suffer extensive heat waves and droughts, while others face more frequent and severe storms.

Science is also firm on the fact that the diversity of life is being lost at an unsustainable rate.

Each year, many species become extinct as their habitats are destroyed, fragmented or polluted.

“Our dependence on fossil fuels, land-use practices and global deforestation are all increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, which in turn are changing the global climate”

Some species, including pollinators such as bees and butterflies, vital to our wellbeing, have seen their populations dramatically reduced due to widespread use of pesticides.

Pollutants that accumulate in the environment reduce the ecosystem’s ability to regenerate and provide people with vital services, such as clean water, air and food.

Over the past 40 years, Europe has been putting in place policies to tackle specific problems, such as air and water pollution. Many of these policies have delivered remarkable results.

Europe has cut its greenhouse gas emissions and made sound investments in more liveable cities, sustainable mobility and renewable energy.

Our quality of life has improved and the numbers of Europeans dying prematurely from the effects of poor air quality have been cut by half since the early 1990s.

We can now all enjoy cleaner bathing waters and be awed by nature in increasing numbers of protected areas.

The Energy Union, the Circular Economy Package and promoting sustainable finance are all steps in the right direction.

However, despite marked progress, research confirms that our current systems of consumption and production are simply unsustainable.

The linear economic model - turning raw materials into goods that are consumed and then discarded - leads to growing amounts of pollution and waste as well as global competition for natural resources.

It is also clear that the benefits of economic growth are not shared equally.

Should current trends continue, regardless of their country and income level, future generations will be faced with more extreme temperatures and weather events, fewer species, growing resource scarcity and more pollution.

Given this outlook, it is not surprising that thousands of young Europeans are demonstrating on the streets, urging policymakers to take ambitious and effective action to mitigate climate change.

The daunting challenges can be difficult to accept. Established governance structures, consumer habits and preferences can be difficult to change.

Yet, despite the magnitude of the task, it is definitely possible to build a sustainable future.

This entails changing some of our current practices, for example, by cutting environmentally-harmful subsidies, phasing out polluting technologies and supporting sustainable alternatives.

A carbon-neutral, circular economy can reduce pressures on nature and limit the rise in global temperatures.

Changing our course will also require changing our habits and behaviours, for example, in the way we move and what we eat.

In the 25 years since its inception, the European Environment Agency has been developing knowledge to enhance our understanding of people, environment and the economy as parts of the same system.

The work is far from complete but there is enough knowledge to steer a transition towards long-term sustainability.

There is also growing public support for change. Now, what those in power need to do is take responsibility and accelerate this process.

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