Europe’s environmental bad guys
The European Commission was careful to only name countries in order to praise them in its overview to the first Environmental Implementation Review, but a closer look by POLITICO at the appended 28 country reports finds a lot more dirt on individual members.
The report, issued Monday, assessed the performance of all member countries on the implementation of a wide range of EU legislation, from nature protection laws to waste and water management regulation and air pollution — where only Ireland and Estonia were within EU air quality standards.
Karmenu Vella, the environment commissioner, wants the biennial surveys to become as important to countries as financial and economic reports.
PROTECTED SPECIES UNDER THREAT
Percentage of protected species* with an unfavourable conservation status:
Here are country-by-country highlights, in alphabetical order.
Austria’s performance on environmental protection was deemed generally good, and the country “is among the top performers in the EU with regard to waste management.” But it does have one dark spot: the highest portion — 81 percent — of protected species with an unfavorable conservation status. The report blamed exemptions to EU nature laws for “a widespread (and perhaps systematic) deterioration of many habitats and decline of many species populations for which [Natura 2000, a network of protected areas in the EU] protected sites have initially been designated.” For example, Austria is the only EU country where a large carnivore species, the central alpine brown bear, became extinct after the country joined the bloc.
Belgium was “Europe’s most congested country in terms of hours wasted or traffic delays,” with nitrogen dioxide emissions 7 percent above national ceilings set by the EU, according to the report. Water pollution was also a big issue, affecting 72 percent of surface water bodies.
Bulgaria had the highest concentration of harmful particulates known as PM2.5 (overall) and PM10 (in urban areas) of any EU country. It had the highest share of external costs associated with air pollution, stated the report, resulting in the loss of more than 2 million working days and more than 11,000 premature deaths per year. On the other hand, Bulgaria was praised for its “well structured and coherent waste management plan, used as a model by other member states.”
Croatia fared poorly on waste management, with a 17 percent recycling rate for municipal waste in 2014 — far below the 50 percent EU target for 2020. Among a series of causes, the report blamed insufficient separate collection of waste. Croatian surface waters are also in bad shape: Pollution from human activities like agriculture affected 94 percent of surface waters.
While air quality in Cyprus was generally good, its water management was generally not. According to the report, overuse of ground water is the major problem. Only 20 percent of groundwater bodies have a satisfactory level of water. The report noted, however, that Cyprus is investing to tackle water scarcity.
The Czech Republic has to make significant efforts to conform to EU water laws. The main pressure on the country’s waters are alterations to the natural courses of rivers and lakes. Dams, for example, affect 67 percent of waterways. The report highlighted that “planning of new physical modifications and application of exemptions [to EU water laws] is not transparent.” In 2014, breaches of EU air quality standards related to harmful particulates PM10 were registered in 10 air-quality zones, and annual average concentration of nitrogen dioxide was above the legal level in Prague.
Reducing the pressure caused by intensive agriculture and improving air quality in densely populated areas are Denmark’s main challenges, according to the report. While Denmark achieves a high recycling rate, the country also generates the most waste per capita — 758 kilograms in 2014 compared to the EU average of 475 kilograms.
Estonia is one of the EU’s most inefficient economies, generating only 49 cents of output for every kilogram of resources, compared to an EU average of €2 per kilogram, the report found. That could change if it does a better job of implementing circular economy practices and policies. On the plus side, the country is one of only two where people can actually breathe clean air, with no breaches of EU air pollution limits in 2014.
The report called for Finland to improve air quality around Helsinki and reduce water pollution from agriculture. The latter is a problem for the Baltic Sea, where NGOs have flagged algae proliferation caused by the widespread use of fertilizers that wash into the sea. Despite this, leakage of nitrates from Finland recently increased in the Bothnian Bay, the part of the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland.
France’s two main environmental problems were air and water pollution caused by agriculture, according to the report. Air pollutants exceeded the EU air quality standards for nitrogen dioxide in 19 zones and for harmful particulates PM10 in 17 zones in 2014, in part because of France’s reliance on diesel cars.
Germany was a top performer in waste management, with 64 percent of municipal garbage being recycled, the best in the EU. However, there were problems with air and water quality. EU air quality standards were breached in 34 areas in 2014. The report also noted “acute problems” of nitrate pollution in groundwater and in the Baltic and North seas.
The “absolute priority” for Greece is addressing waste management problems, the report said. The country only recycles 19 percent of its municipal trash (compared to an EU average of 44 percent) and 81 percent of that is tossed into landfills, compared to the EU average of 31 percent. Illegal landfills and inadequate treatment of hazardous waste were flagged as areas of concern. Air quality was also an issue, mainly in Athens and Thessaloniki.
Hungary is one of several EU countries recently hit by smog alerts, as cities from Madrid to Warsaw choke under smog made worse by winter weather. Budapest and Pécs scored especially badly. Water management is another concern, with Hungary ranked 32 out of 34 countries worldwide by the European Environment Agency for use of renewable water sources. The report also encouraged the country to find natural solutions to recurring floods, something that is likely to worsen with climate change.
Ireland is not doing enough in nature conservation, and it should ramp up its designation of natural areas to be protected under the EU’s Natura 2000 network, said the report. Protecting western Ireland’s peat bogs “remains a challenge.” But at least the Irish, like the Estonians, breathe clean air.
Italy also needs to improve its water management and air pollution. Drought and water scarcity were problems due to irrigation and water consumption. Pollution affected 38 percent of rivers, lakes and other surface waters. Waste management issues were also persistent, especially in southern Italy. The report suggested measures such as a national landfill tax.
Latvia fell short on waste management, with a recycling rate of only 21 percent, said the report. While some water management plans are still missing, quality is pretty good with 53 percent of rivers and lakes and almost all groundwater having good or high ecological status.
Lithuania recycled only 31 percent of its municipal trash. Air quality was especially problematic over Vilnius, the report said.
Malta’s report focused on waste management issues, with a recycling rate of only 12 percent. The country has to export some of its waste because it doesn’t have proper recycling facilities. On the positive side, it has excelled in ”green infrastructure,” such as using stone walls to adapt to climate change and manage floods.
The Netherlands performed poorly on water and air quality, according to the report, with high concentrations of nitrates and phosphates from fertilizers. Traffic jams caused air quality problems, specifically in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and The Hague, which are among the dozen worst-performing areas in the EU. The Dutch were praised for setting an example with market incentives, such as green procurement, to spur environmentally friendly growth.
Poland, which largely relies on coal-generated electricity, was one of the worst performers in the European Environment Agency’s 2016 report on air quality in Europe. It breached EU air quality standards for harmful particulates PM10 in 42 zones in 2014, “often by a large margin,” according to the Commission’s report. “It is striking that, given such a grave air pollution problem, Poland has no standards for solid fuels sold on the market or emission standards for new boilers.”
Portugal’s environmental performance was weighed down by its poor performance in waste management, according to the report. Its rate of sending garbage to landfills — 49 percent — is significantly higher than the EU average of 28 percent. It also underperforms in recycling only 30 percent of municipal waste. However, it did well with its quality of drinking water, with compliance rates of 99 to 100 percent.
Romania underperformed in waste treatment, recycling only 16 percent of household trash. Pollution affects one-third of its lakes, rivers and underground reservoirs. Intensive agriculture also causes increased pressure on its natural resources, warned the report.
Slovakia had one of the lowest recycling rate for municipal waste in the EU — only 12 percent. The report called for the country to significantly ramp up its waste collection schemes and reduce its reliance on landfills: “Full implementation of the existing waste legislation could create more than 5,900 jobs in Slovakia and increase the annual turnover of the waste sector by over €620 million.”
In order to achieve a higher level of environmental protection, Slovenia is going to have to focus on prioritizing waste-water investments, said the report. Only nine urban areas meet the requirements for water treatment. But a municipal waste recycling rate of 61 percent was second only to Germany’s, and a “state-of-the-art regional waste management center” in Ljubljana drew praise.
Spain also has water management problems. Different regions face different issues, the report said — pollution affects 68 percent of water bodies in the Andalusian Mediterranean river basin but only 18 percent in the Ebro river basin district. It also recycled a third of its garbage.
Grasslands suffered from an unfavorable conservation status, which shows a need for management and restoration. Air pollutants exceeded EU standards in Gothenburg and Stockholm. The report pointed out what needed to be done to protect Sweden’s marine areas, especially monitoring.
The U.K.’s main challenge is improving air quality in urban areas and tackling water quality, especially nitrate pollution as well as other urban waste-water issues. Persistent breaches of air quality requirements have severe negative effects on health and environment, costing more than €28 billion a year, said the report.