What Europe thinks of the environment in 22 fascinating graphs

Once every two years, thousands of Europeans are quizzed for their views on the environmental. The result is the most definitive snapshot of public opinion we’ll get for a while. All graphs in this article come from the research summary.

Its official: environmental protection is important. This is the unsurprising view from a surprisingly large chunk of European public opinion; 94% of the 27,000 people interviewed face-to-face by professional pollsters in homes across Europe.

The 94% figure is just one of the many insights revealed in a snapshot of social attitudes from people with a broad range of social and demographic backgrounds taken in December 2019. Combined with lessons from past polling, it provides an unparalleled treasure trove of intelligence from which campaigners and communicators can build or justify positions and policies. It is also a sneak peak at the direction of travel for EU policymakers.

People care, and it’s personal

Environmental issues are personal. Just one in five disagree. Relatability of green issues dropped slightly since the last survey in 2017.

There is a continental split, with those in Nordic countries agreeing far less than in the south. Agreement was 55% in Denmark, 56% in Sweden, 62% in Finland, compared to 96% in Cyprus, 95% in Portugal, 94% in Malta and 92% in Spain and Greece. 

Environmental protection is important for most, but only fairly important for a big chunk of people and not much more so than in previous years, despite the slew of shocking headlines on environmental issues, from mass coral bleaching to runaway wildfires.

There were 13 states where at least half said that protecting the environment is “very important”. Feelings ran highest in Sweden (81%) and Cyprus (76%) and lowest in Estonia and Latvia (both 36%).

TV news grew as the number one source of environmental updates. Social media is in second, with Facebook the most important platform for the general public.

Despite long-running financial troubles in medialand, TV news and newspapers both grew as sources of environmental news since 2017, at the expense of documentaries, magazines, journals, museums and other longer form, more carefully curated content. In all but three European states, TV news is the go-to source. This for 88% of those in Portugal, 80% in Bulgaria. The small nations of Latvia, Luxembourg and Malta prefer social. Facebook dominates social in every member state, with the Netherlands the only country where less than half of respondents look to the platform.

Consumption needs to change

Products, trade and consumption are seen as the big problems, with only middling support for stronger rules, enforcement and fiscal measures.

Around two out of three Europeans agree their consumption habits adversely affect the environment, though more than a quarter disagree.

Former Eastern bloc countries tend to agree less, 43% in Czechia, 48% in Latvia and 49% in Lithuania, compared to 82% in Portugal, 81% in Ireland, and 80% in the UK.

Recycling is the number one environmental activity, but avoiding throwaway plastic is already a major public action. A third appear to be green evangelists.

Views have not changed: while citizens think everyone needs to do more, it’s companies and national governments who need to step up the most.

Just 15% of respondents felt industry is doing enough. Strongest feelings were in Greece (92%) and Spain (91%), while they were least strong in Estonia and Austria (66% each). Countries with the highest number of people feeling industry is getting it right were Poland (27%) and Austria (26%). 

More Europe, please

Governments are not doing enough to protect the planet, said 72% of respondents. Just 3% were satisfied. The EU faired a little better. 

More people felt there was insufficient action at all levels than in 2017. There were more people wanting action at a local level in Greece (79%), Spain and Croatia (73% each), than Czechia (38%) at the lowest end. More Spanish people were dissatisfied with national action than any other country (87%), then Slovenia (85%), Greece (84%) and France (83%). The most content were Danes, with 42% feeling the state is doing about right. Opinion has shifting fastest for the better in Greece (+5% points to 13%) and Romania (+4% to 20%) and for the worse in Germany (-13% points to 25%) and Cyprus (-12% to 25%). Those most satisfied with EU action were Swedes (86%), Slovenians (82%) and Spanish (81%), with the least in Cyprus (40%), Poland and Estonia (45% each). 

Trouble in the air

Climate tops the list of concerns, though air pollution is more important in six EU countries.

Climate change is the ranking green issue in 13 European countries, including the UK (65% of respondents), Denmark and Cyprus (62% each) and Sweden (61%), while dirty air is most important in six countries. In seven countries, the growing amount of waste is considered the most important environmental issue, while in Germany, marine pollution is most frequently chosen. Climate is considered most important by just 27% in Slovakia, 28% in Czechia and 32% in Estonia.

Was plastic ever fantastic?

The BBC’s Blue Planet 2 is credited with creating a sea-change in public opinion on plastic pollution, but concern was already high the year before the series aired. Industry is still seen as to problem. 

If EU policymakers are nervous about the upcoming crack down on microplastics, they can take heart in the overwhelming public concern uncovered by pollsters for the first time this year. Almost nine out of ten are worried, half strongly so, with just one in ten disagreeing it is a problem. It is much the same picture for plastic more generally, and for both, opinions were consistent throughout Europe, even after the launch of Europe’s pioneering single-use-plastic laws. The numbers haven’t moved much on who is to blame either. Design choices by manufacturers is rightly at the top – looks like the EU could have been more ambitious on its recently launched Circular Economy Action Plan.

On most of the measures to tackle the problem, feelings are consistent across Europe, with large majorities seeing them as important or very important. Of those with the strongest views, designing products for recycling gets the biggest support in Cyprus (87%), the UK (81%) and Slovenia (80%), the lowest in Poland (51%), Latvia (52%) and Romania (53%). The Dutch are most likely to say it is very important that industry and retailers raise their game (87%), while the Poles and Romanians are lukewarm (48% and 53%).

While better choices by designers and retailers are seen as solutions, they should bear in mind the huge degree of scepticism about greenwash.

A chemical reaction

A lot of people continue to worry about toxic chemicals, about the same as public concern about plastic products.

They are right to be concerned. There are still huge problems with companies failing to take chemical safety seriously, even if things are moving in the right direction. In every country, more than four out of five respondents agreed that they are worried about the impact of chemicals on the environment, with concern running highest in Cyprus and Portugal (97% each), Spain and Greece (96% each), and Luxembourg and Malta (both 95%). Lowest was Austria (82%), Lithuania and Romania (83%).  

Time for a change of clothes

A flurry of questions on clothing demonstrate strong support for progressive policies.

Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius said: “The results of this survey are no surprise to us. With the European Green Deal these are exactly the citizens’ concerns that we want to address. I am encouraged to see that there is support for the fundamental changes we are going to make in our society and economy, and that people want to play an active role in this change.”