As a devastating European Environment Agency report takes the EU to task for its dismal failure to protect the ecosystem, it is high time for Europe to abandon its fixation on endless economic growth, experts at a post-growth event in Helsinki urged.

The message is clear. Europe’s environment is in grave peril. That was the verdict of the European Environmental Agency’s ‘State of the Environment Report 2020’. Out of the 35 indicators and policy objectives for 2020 which the EEA tracked, the EU is on track to meeting a dismal six.

“Europe’s environment is at a tipping point. We have a narrow window of opportunity in the next decade to scale up measures to protect nature, lessen the impacts of climate change, and radically reduce the consumption of natural resources,” urged the EEA’s Director Hans Bruyninckx.

“Europe will not achieve its sustainability vision of ‘living well, within the limits of our planet’ simply by promoting economic growth and seeking to manage the harmful side‑effects with environmental and social policy tools,” the report concluded. Instead, it calls for a fundamental shift in the core systems that shapes the European economy and modern social life.  

The response of the Green 10, the 10 largest environmental organisations working at the EU level, to the EEA’s devastating report was to call on the EU to transform ths “gloom and doom scenario” into far-reaching reforms that integrate the environmental and social dimensions into all policy areas. The European Green Deal further provides the opportunity to highlight the direct link between climate action and nature conservation and restoration, as well as placing ecological resilience at the forefront.

Resilience and tipping points

The EEB recently hosted a workshop at the Beyond Growth conference in Helsinki discussing what kind of indicators are needed to measure ecological resilience, how to integrate that evidence into policies, and how to translate this into progress towards sustainability.

Entitled ‘Resilience and Respecting the Ecosystem Boundaries’, the session drew participants from government, NGOs, statistical bodies, and academia. Keynote speakers at the workshop included Jan-Erik Petersen from the European Environment Agency and Helmut Scholz, a Member of the European Parliament.

Resilience relates to the human need for security, safety and survival. The concept of resilience emerged in the scientific literature in the early 1970s and is commonly defined as “the capacity of a system to regenerate itself after a particular shock.”

This concept is applied in the fields of biodiversity and climate change adaptation, but it can be broadened to include preparing to deal with a shock to and freezing of the global financial system, as was nearly the case in 2008. Resilience is closely linked to “tipping points” – if the pressure is beyond the system resilience, a “tipping point” can be breached whereby there is systemic change and new rules and conditions apply.

“Many of the planet-wide ecosystems are near to their tipping points and inequality within countries is growing,” Helmut Scholz told the audience.

Ecosystem above economy

In these testing times on the global environmental and trade fronts, the EU should quickly become a more resilient place, participants in the workshop stressed. In this case, greater resilience means reducing the risk of environmental degradation, harmful transformation or ecological collapse. Examples include soil loss that impacts agricultural productivity, desertification, salt intrusion in groundwater aquifers, fish stock collapse from rising temperatures. Global trade flows can create risks – such as deforestation abroad – and can be at risk where there is ecosystem collapse. Europeans need to be able to live well both now and in the future.

“The implications of global ecosystem degradation are significant, and can ultimately be drivers of poverty, inequality and migration,” explained Jan-Erik Peterson. “We have signals that show that there is a problem with ecosystem stability but we need to develop solution-focused information and indicators.”

Scholz emphasised the need to incorporate the concept of resilience into trade policies and other frameworks as well as close cooperation with the Global South. “Resilience cannot remain a European debate we must address the needs together with our partners in the Global South,” he insisted.

Further discussion focused on the consideration of ecological resilience in larger policy frameworks at the European and international level, such as the European Green Deal, EU financial instruments and the SDGs.

The workshop delivered recommendations in three main areas. Firstly, EU policymaking must be driven by principles of ecological resilience and social wellbeing, and respect ecosystem boundaries. Secondly, considering the poor status of our ecosystems, the Union should develop a concrete action plan and binding European targets for the SDGs.  Thirdly, the EU should commit to a budget that supports public goods, invests in resilient ecosystems, respects planetary boundaries and promotes European cohesion and social.

The total set of policy recommendation are available online.