Global sustainability challenges increasingly raise concerns about the stability of the Earth system that supports all life on our planet. A joint study by the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), published recently, focuses on four critical elements of that system, such as the nitrogen cycle and changes in land use. The study explores different ways of defining Europe’s share of the global safe operating space and shows that Europe is not yet living within those limits.
A new joint EEA-FOEN report ‘Is Europe living within the limits of our planet?’ explores two key questions related to Europe’s long-term sustainability ambitions. The first question is how to define a ‘safe operating space’ for Europe where all humanity can continue to develop and thrive. The second question is whether Europe’s consumption, or environmental footprint, is currently smaller or larger than its estimated ‘safe operating space’.
The report acknowledges that there are different ways to allocate Europe’s operating space in the global context, which inevitably involve normative choices about fairness, equity, international burden sharing, sovereignty and the right for development. Based on these different allocation principles, the study arrives to a minimum European share of 2.7 %, a maximum share of 21 %, and a median share of 7.3 % of the global limits.
Using a consumption-based analysis for four of the Earths life support systems, the report shows that Europe currently exceeds its safe operating space for nitrogen cycle by a factor of 3.3; phosphorous cycle by a factor of 2.0, and land system change by a factor of 1.8. Conversely, Europe does live within its limits when it comes to freshwater use, although problems with overconsumption and water scarcity remain locally and regionally.
The report also includes a case study of Switzerland’s biodiversity footprint. Considering the potential for global species loss because of land use, and by using and an equal share of land use per capita, the Swiss biodiversity footprint exceeds the threshold value by a factor of 3.7.