United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Global Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version

Chapter 2: Regional Perspectives

[ GEO-1: Home | Complete Report | Search | Feedback | Order Book | Collaborating Centres | About GEO Reports ]

Europe and CIS countries

Major Environmental Concerns

[ Land | Forest | Biodiversity | Water | Marine and Coastal Environments | Atmosphere | Urban and Industrial Environments ]

The first pan-European conference of environmental ministers, held at Dobríš Castle, Czechoslovakia, in 1991, requested that a comprehensive state of the environment report be done for the whole of Europe. Prepared by the European Environment Agency Task Force in cooperation with Governments and intergovernmental bodies, the Dobríš Assessment was published in 1995 (EEA, 1995a). Without indicating priorities, the report identified the following as the 12 most significant environmental problems of concern to Europe:

  • climate change,
  • stratospheric ozone depletion,
  • the loss of biodiversity,
  • major accidents,
  • acidification,
  • tropospheric ozone and other photochemical oxidants,
  • the management of fresh water,
  • forest degradation,
  • coastal zone threats and management,
  • waste reduction and management,
  • urban stress, and
  • chemical risks.

The Dobríš Assessment has been an important source of information for this section. Additional documents that were of use related to specific sectoral issues and supplemented the information contained in the Dobríš report on Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). It is noteworthy that the relatively prolific and detailed documentation available for much of the region contains frequent references to the inadequacy of existing data for reliable environmental monitoring and assessment.

The region is vast, covering more than a fifth of the earth s land area and extending further than 11,000 kilometres between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Russian Federation makes up more than 60 per cent of this total area. Some 15 per cent of the world s population live in Europe and the CIS countries.


Land degradation has been identified as a crucial and increasing environmental problem in the region, the most severe forms being the irreversible processes of erosion, acidification, and pollution. Soil compaction, loss of organic matter, overgrazing, improper irrigation, salinization, and waterlogging are other, less common forms of land degradation in the region (EEA, 1995a). Parts of Europe also suffer from desertification. Both physical and chemical degradation are expected to continue unless low-input agriculture and erosion control measures are widely adopted (CEC, 1992).

Soil erosion is increasing in Europe. Mediterranean areas are particularly susceptible, and parts of CEE and the CIS have also been widely affected. For example, 56 per cent of agricultural lands in Russia are subject to erosion of different types (Min. of Env. Prot. and Nat. Res. of the Russ. Fed., 1995a); equivalent figures for the Ukraine and Kazakstan are 34 per cent and 42 per cent respectively (Min. of Env. Prot. of Ukraine, 1994; Min. of Ecol. and Biol. Res., Kazakstan, 1993). West of the Urals, an estimated 12 per cent (115 million hectares) of the total land area is affected by water erosion and 4 per cent by wind erosion (EEA, 1995a). Major problems include the loss of humus, production losses, the cost of replacing lost nutrients, and damage to areas that receive the eroded materials (EEA, 1995a).

Pollution of land from a variety of contaminants (heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, nitrates, phosphates, artificial radionuclides, and so on) is widespread, though the area affected is not accurately determined. Among other effects, pollutants may lower plant yields; enter food chains and water supplies, rendering them unfit for human consumption; and inhibit soil micro-organisms, thereby disturbing natural decomposition processes.

Pesticides and fertilizers are major sources of these pollutants. Industrial processes, fossil fuel combustion, waste and wastewater sludge disposal, and accidental release contribute significantly (EEA, 1995a). The Chernobyl disaster is a case in point. After the event in 1986, over 23 per cent of the territory of Belarus alone was affected by radioactive fallout (Republic of Belarus, 1995). Large areas remain contaminated more than 10 years after the event, including 430,000 hectares of the worst affected areas of Belarus, Russia, and the Ukraine, which remain an "alienation zone," and a further 9.4 million hectares of agricultural land that remain contaminated with long-lived radionuclides (IAEA, 1996). Additional, less well-known cases of serious radionuclide soil contamination in eastern Europe and the CIS countries are associated with other nuclear installations and test sites.

Other serious cases of contamination include oil and heavy-metal pollution of soils around abandoned military sites in the CIS countries, and oil leakages into land and aquatic ecosystems during oil extraction and transportation activities in western Siberia. It is estimated that some 7-20 per cent of all oil extracted ends up in these ecosystems (Mnatsakanian, 1994).

Acidification is frequently a transboundary problem. Whereas the main emission sources are in north-western and central Europe, the greatest impacts are in the industrialized, densely populated zone that extends from Poland and the Czech Republic through Germany and the Benelux countries to the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. Present loads of acidic deposition are higher than critical loads in roughly 60 per cent of Europe, with central parts of Europe receiving 20 times more acidity than the ecosystem s critical loads (EEA, 1995a).

Sulphur deposition predominates in the more northerly countries whereas nitrogen leaching and associated problems are typical for central Europe and the Netherlands. Although long-term trends in acid deposition are not yet available, there is an indication that the Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) Convention prepared under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN-ECE) is effectively reducing sulphur-related acidification in the region, as discussed later in this section (EEA, 1995a).

In agricultural areas, the application of chemicals has tended to offset acid deposition, but outside these areas the effects are not mitigated. Acid deposition is a problem in most countries in western Europe where soils have low buffering capacity. At present, 30 per cent of the forested area of Europe is thought to be degraded from this, with a further 15 per cent at risk if acid deposition continues (EEA, 1995a). Acidification of soil and water has been particularly serious in the Scandinavian countries because of prevailing winds and the high natural acidity of soils (EEA, 1995a; Bernes, 1993).

A third of Europe s 300 million hectares of drylands suffers some degree of desertification and the reduction in biological and economic productivity that goes with it (UNEP, 1992a). Desertified areas are mainly uncultivated and abandoned lands (15 million hectares), drylands (13 million hectares), and irrigated lands (1.6 million hectares) (UNEP, 1992a). Changes in agricultural practices, particularly the intensification of land use, are thought to have been the prime causes (EEA, 1995a). The affected areas are mainly in southern and central Europe and the southern parts of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) (UNEP, 1996).


Forests cover 27 per cent of the region west of the Urals and 35 per cent of the FSU-a total of 900 million hectares (FAO, 1995b). Combined, they contain almost 15 per cent of the world s forest biomass (FAO, 1995b). A large proportion of the region s forests are in the Russian Federation (FAO, 1995b). The region, however, has little left of its mature, biodiversity-rich natural forest ecosystems due to centuries of exploitation (EEA, 1995a).

Since the early 1960s, Europe s total forest area has increased by more than 10 per cent, mainly in the south and west (EEA, 1995a). Though small in percentage terms, there have been some huge areal increases in the east as well: from 1988 to 1993, registered forestlands in Russia increased by 3.9 million hectares (0.33 per cent) (Min. of Env. Prot. and Nat. Res. of the Russ. Fed., 1995a). Increases have been due to reforestation policies and spontaneous tree growth in marginal areas (EEA, 1995a).

While there is an overall increase in growing stock and forest productivity in the region (FAO, 1995b), large-scale deforestation is currently under way in the boreal forests of the Russian Federation. Much of the logging there is fostered by large timber companies from outside the area; the extensive timber removal is causing serious erosion problems and habitat changes that have negative impacts on biodiversity (EEA, 1995a). In addition, in some CEE countries such as Georgia, thousands of hectares of mountain forests have been felled to provide fuel (REC, 1994). However, the region s forests are reportedly increasingly valued for their environmental and other non-wood functions (FAO, 1995b).

Forest degradation is of more widespread concern in Europe than deforestation. Crown defoliation and discolouration indicate a general worsening in forest conditions in many parts of the region, although no reliable correlation has been established yet between tree growth and defoliation. The forests most severely affected by defoliation are in central, north, and south-east Europe. In a 1993 transnational survey, 22.6 per cent of trees were found to be defoliated by more than 25 per cent (EC/UN-ECE, 1994). Recent research has demonstrated a number of causative factors, including adverse weather conditions, air pollution, pests and pathogens, and forest fires rather than just acid rain, as previously suspected (EC/UN-ECE, 1994; EEA, 1995a).

Nevertheless, a number of the most affected countries consider air pollution the major reason for catastrophic dieback in local areas including the Black Triangle on the borders of Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic; Upper Silesia in Poland; and the Kola Peninsula and Norilsk areas of Russia (Nowicki, 1993; Min. of Env. Prot. and Nat. Res. of the Russ. Fed., 1993; Min. of Env. of the Czech Republic, 1996). It is believed that emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from coal-fuelled power plants are largely responsible for the 35-50 per cent of CEE forests that are damaged or dying, while non-ferrous smelting is a major contributor to the degradation of the Russian sites (Environmental Resources Ltd., 1990). Fires damage some 700,000 hectares of forest each year, mainly in parts of the FSU and southern Europe, although in the latter area a certain frequency of burning is necessary to maintain vegetation types like chaparral and maquis (EEA, 1995a).


Europe is estimated to have more than 2,500 habitat types, which are home to some 215,000 species, more than 90 per cent of which are invertebrates (EEA, 1995a). Many of these species are currently threatened by extinction: 52 per cent of fish are under threat, 45 per cent of reptiles, 42 per cent of mammals, 30 per cent of amphibians, and 15 per cent of birds (EEA, 1995a). Of Europe s 12,500 species of higher plants, 21 per cent are threatened, although only 27 species are known to have become extinct (EEA, 1995a). The countries with the highest percentage of threatened plant species are Slovakia (36 per cent), the Netherlands (35 per cent), and Romania (at least 30 per cent) (EEA, 1995a). In comparison with the rest of the world, the total number of species in Europe is relatively small but the percentage of threatened species is large (EEA, 1995a).

Natural ecosystems, which sustain a high proportion of plant and animal species, are best preserved in the extremities of the region-the far North, parts of eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin. This latter area boasts the highest species diversity in the region, whereas eastern Europe has particularly high species endemism. Natural ecosystems are sparse and fragmented in western and central Europe, which are also the areas with the highest percentages of threatened species (EEA, 1995a).

Every country in Europe has passed legislation to protect sites for nature conservation, though some Mediterranean and CEE countries have lagged behind in this respect. The Russian Federation alone has more than 65 million hectares of national parks and protected areas (IUCN, 1994). Figure 2.10 shows the distribution of protected areas in Europe. The total extent of these protected areas has increased rapidly: two thirds of the more than 40,000 sites have been designated since the Stockholm Conference in 1972, and 10 million hectares have been added since 1982 (EEA, 1995a).

As elsewhere, forests are an important reservoir of biodiversity and play a central role in wildlife conservation. Many countries now protect part of their natural forest primarily for this purpose (EEA, 1995a). Slovenia, for example, has established a network of natural forest reserves, some of which have remained undisturbed for more than 100 years and introduced a system of unique-habitat "eco-cells" to protect particular species (A. Velkavrh, Ministry of Environmental Protection, Slovenia, personal communication, July 1996).

Unfortunately, the designation of protected areas does not automatically guarantee their success; overall in Europe, management of protected areas is considered to be currently inadequate to retain the integrity of the ecosystems that they represent (EEA, 1995a). It is interesting to note the unexpected side effect of the cold war in this respect, where nature flourished in the closed areas on the former East-West border (UNEP, 1996).

Coastal and marine ecosystems are habitats for an enormous number and range of species, including millions of birds. Many of Europe s remaining marine and coastal sites of ecological importance have no protected status; of 135 sites evaluated for the Dobríš Assessment, nearly half were considered under threat from coastline development (EEA, 1995a). In France, for instance, natural coastal areas are being lost at a rate of 1 per cent a year; 15 per cent have disappeared since 1976, and 90 per cent of the French Riviera is now developed (EEA, 1995a).

Managed ecosystems also contain an important cross-section of species and landscape types. Intensive, monocultural forestry and agricultural practices have been detrimental to both types of biodiversity, although for the most part forestry now contributes to preserving biodiversity and habitats (EEA, 1995a).

Depending on the geographical location, Europe s biodiversity is under pressure from mass tourism (affecting coasts and mountains), intensification of agriculture (grasslands and wetlands), deteriorating water quality (freshwater and coastal ecosystems), forest management geared towards economic gains (forests), and industrial, transport, and energy policies (coasts, major rivers, and mountains) (EEA, 1995a).


Both the quantity and the quality of fresh water present major problems over much of the region, and the issue is of growing importance (UNEP, 1996).

Although there is no overall water shortage in Europe, water availability varies considerably. (See Table 2.6.) Malta has the least water available (100 cubic metres per person a year), while Iceland has more than 600,000 cubic metres available a year for each resident (EEA, 1995a). Low availability is a characteristic of the relatively dry, southern countries of the region and those with high population densities and moderate precipitation in the west. Some 70 per cent of all water withdrawals west of the Urals are from surface supplies, many of which are transboundary sources (EEA, 1995a). Rivers are also the principal source of water in Russia although occurrence does not closely match demand. While more than 80 per cent of the population lives in the basins of the Caspian and Azov seas, with high agricultural and industrial potential, these basins contain only 8 per cent of the nation s water resources (Min. of Env. Prot. and Nat. Res. of the Russ. Fed., 1994). Some 90 per cent of Russia s surface runoff drains to the Arctic and Pacific oceans (EEA, 1995a).

Withdrawal as a percentage of available water resources, or water use intensity, ranges from 0.1 per cent in Iceland to more than 70 per cent in Belgium (EEA, 1995a). Annual per capita withdrawal rates range from 156 cubic metres (Luxembourg) to more than 4,000 cubic metres (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) (WRI/UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996). The breakdown into supplies for industry, agriculture, and domestic use varies widely; in European Union (EU) countries, the average ratio is 53:26:19 (EEA, 1995a). Total water withdrawal has stabilized or even decreased in some countries in recent years, including Austria, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland, and there are some encouraging signs of increased water use efficiency due to improved technology in industrial and agricultural sectors. On the other hand, large amounts of water are being lost through leakages, particularly in urban water systems where losses of up to 80 per cent have been reported (UN-ECE, 1996). On balance, water use is still increasing in the region (EEA, 1995a and 1995b).

The regional imbalance between water supply and demand is a major concern, as it leads to unsustainable exploitation of water resources in many areas. The noticeable increase in frequency and severity of droughts in the region, possibly an early sign of climate change, could exacerbate this situation (UNEP, 1996). Ground water is of enormous importance for public water supplies in the region, providing around 65 per cent of the total (EEA, 1995a). About 60 per cent of European industrial and urban centres are close to areas where ground water is overexploited, and some are experiencing water shortages as a result: 25 per cent of wetlands west of the Urals are threatened by lowered ground-water tables, and extensive tracts of the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Black sea coasts are suffering from salt intrusion in ground-water supplies (EEA, 1995a). The availability of clean water for all sorts of uses has become a topic of intergovernmental and international disputes in the CEE countries (EEA, 1995a).

Water quality is the second freshwater concern. The range of possible contaminants and the mobility of water in the environment makes this a complex issue. Acidification of fresh water has already been mentioned in the context of land degradation above.

European waters tended to show a marked increase in both phosphorus and nitrogen loadings during the 1960s and 1970s, making them more prone to eutrophication and toxicity (EEA, 1995a). While point sources, particularly municipal sewage outflows, make a major contribution to phosphorus levels, in some areas, agriculture is estimated to be responsible for up to 80 per cent of the nitrogen loading and 20-40 per cent of the phosphorus loading in surface waters (EEA, 1995a). Despite a levelling off in average inputs of nitrogen fertilizer to agricultural land and a drastic fall in countries such as Poland, nitrogen levels have continued to rise in more than two thirds of the European rivers measured (EEA, 1995a). In ground water, nitrate concentrations are frequently above levels considered safe for human consumption. Rural communities are particularly at risk from this source. However, for phosphorus the trends have now reversed where countries, mainly in the west and south, have taken positive measures to reduce discharges (EEA, 1995a; WHO, 1995). The phosphorus concentration in the Rhine is a good example of the decrease that followed efforts initiated in the 1960s to collect and treat sewage before discharge into the river (UNEP, 1995). (See Figure 2.11.)

Loadings of organic matter have decreased in many European rivers as sewage treatment practices have improved. However, this form of freshwater contamination is still widespread in some parts of the region. The worst affected countries in western Europe and CEE are Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland (EEA, 1995a). A recent 10-year study in the Russian Federation showed that only 21 per cent of 245 rivers were acceptable in terms of bacteriological pollution (WHO, 1995).

Incidents of diseases linked to contamination of water supplies have been recorded in many countries, but especially in CEE and the CIS. Drinking-water samples tested in 1990 illustrate the widespread nature of this problem. In Belarus, 30 per cent of samples did not meet chemical standards and 8 per cent did not meet biological standards; equivalent figures for Uzbekistan were 37 per cent and 15 per cent; for Turkmenistan, they were 31 per cent and 26 per cent (Info. Centre of Goskomstat, USSR, 1991). There are indications that the situation is worsening. In Russia, 30.5 per cent of drinking-water samples from all over the country in 1993 failed to meet acceptable chemical quality standards and 28.25 per cent failed to reach biological ones (Min. of Env. Prot. and Nat. Res. of the Russ. Fed., 1994). The corresponding figures for 1980 were 15.4 per cent and 22.9 per cent (Min. of Env. Prot. and Nat. Res. of the Russ. Fed., 1994).

Recent information shows that the regulations introduced in response to the alarming concentrations of heavy metals in many European lakes and rivers in the 1970s have been effective. In general, concentrations today are well below standards for drinking water; only mercury and cadmium exceed drinking-water standards in some rivers. There are, however, still some heavy-metal "hot spots" associated with mining areas and industries using large quantities of metals that pose a risk to human health. Aquatic communities may still be affected by the lower concentrations prevailing more widely (EEA, 1995a).

Ground and surface water contamination from industrial, communal, and agricultural sources has been identified as one of the three environmental priorities for CEE (REC, 1994). The whole of Lake Baikal, containing 20 per cent of the earth s fresh water, is now affected by pollutants, including oil, even in its most remote and open parts, with only a minor amount (15 per cent) of effluents being treated satisfactorily (Min. of Env. Prot. and Nat. Res. of the Russ. Fed., 1994 and 1995b). In Hungary, large quantities of nitrogen annually seep into ground-water supplies (Environmental Resources Ltd., 1990). In the former Czechoslovakia, mining wastes, SO2, nitrates from fertilizers, and oil are the main causes of water contamination (Environmental Resources Ltd., 1990). In addition, much of the sewage discharge is untreated. Similar situations exist in other CEE countries and significant portions of some major waterways are not fit even for industrial use.

The need for water treatment facilities is critical. Those that do exist function poorly and have inadequate capacity to cope with the level of treatment necessary. Instances of radionuclide contamination in waters associated with nuclear installations and nuclear waste disposal sites have also been reported for this part of the region. The multiple functions of surface waterways, such as the Danube, Elba, and Vistula rivers, also create conflict among users (Environmental Resources Ltd., 1990; EEA, 1995a; REC, 1994).

Ground-water pollution is expected to become increasingly widespread and acute in coming years, particularly because of uncontrolled waste deposits, leakage from petrochemical tanks, and continuing percolation of untreated sewage, pesticides, and other pollutants into aquifers. As the already high proportion of Europe s drinking water from this source is expected to increase, ground-water quality is a priority issue (EEA, 1995a).

Many wetland habitats have been severely disturbed by freshwater-focused tourism and recreation activities together with the extensive physical and chemical modification of lakes and rivers in the region. Wildlife support functions and water purification capacities are particularly at risk. Only a small proportion of wetlands in the region are protected (EEA, 1995a).

Marine and Coastal Environments

Although the scale of problems has not been fully assessed, the key environmental problems in European seas and coastal areas have been identified as coastal zone pollution, eutrophication, overexploitation of resources, and the longer-term effects of climate change and sea level rise. In addition, important wildlife habitats in some coastal areas continue to be degraded or lost; one frequent consequence is the decline in populations that depend on these habitats for reproduction and other processes.

Europe has a range of different sea types, but its semi-enclosed and closed seas are a distinctive feature of the region. Their basins and shores are heavily affected by human activities. The physical characteristics of each sea, combined with the nature and intensity of the human activities changing it, determine which problem dominates. The seas most at risk from human activity are the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, and the Sea of Azov. The Mediterranean, with its heavy imbalance in population growth, economic development, and pollution loads between north and south shores, is also a cause for concern (UNEP, 1996). Least affected are the North Atlantic Ocean and the Norwegian and Barents seas (EEA, 1995a). West of the Urals, almost 30 per cent of the population lives within 50 kilometres of coastal waters (EEA, 1995a). It is estimated that 86 per cent of the coastal ecosystems in this part of the region are at high or moderate risk from development. (See Figure 2.12.) In FSU, 62 per cent of coastlines are in the same risk categories (WRI/ UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996).

The most significant contaminants in the coastal zone are synthetic organic compounds, microbial organisms, oil, nutrients, litter, and, to a lesser extent, heavy metals and radionuclides. They originate from a wide range of land-based sources and activities in the marine catchment, sometimes hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from the sea, as well as from shipping and other offshore activities. Depending on type, the contaminant can harm marine organisms through physical damage or toxicity, turn bathing water and seafood into a human health hazard, and decrease the amenity value of beaches, thereby damaging local tourist industries.

The Black Sea and the Sea of Azov have the largest and most populated catchments in the region. Together with the Mediterranean, Baltic, and North seas, they consistently receive the highest loads of land-based contaminants-loads that are 10 to 100 times greater than those in the White, Barents, and Norwegian seas. In these areas, catchments and catchment populations are relatively small (EEA, 1995a).

Despite these differences and recent reductions in some of the riverine pollutant discharges [such as a 50-per-cent drop in phosphorus and heavy metal discharges by North Sea States between 1985 and 1995 (EEA, 1995b)], pollution of coastal waters is still considered to be a significant problem in all European seas (EEA, 1995a). Some consider the drying up of the Aral Sea to be the world s single greatest man-made environmental disaster (UNEP, 1996). (See Box 2.2.)

Box 2.2.

The Aral Sea Catastrophe

The Amu Dar'ya and Syr Dar'ya rivers, flowing from the mountains of Tian Shan and Pamirs, are the principal water sources for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and the southern part of Kazakstan. Traditionally, about half of the water was used for irrigation and the other half flowed into the Aral Sea. However, intensive development of irrigation, mainly for cotton, over the last few decades reduced the inflow of these rivers to around 3 per cent, causing severe shrinking of the Aral Sea.

Since 1960 the Aral Sea has lost two thirds of its volume, the surface area has halved, the water level has dropped by 16 metres, and the salinity level is now approaching that of sea water. (See Figures 1 and 2.) Almost all the native organisms have died out, devastating the sea-based portion of the economy.

The 3.3 million hectares of exposed seabed have become a source of aerosols containing salt and agricultural residues that are then deposited by wind over surrounding areas. The resulting poor drinking-water quality and exposure to toxic airborne substances is believed to account for a dramatic deterioration in the health of inhabitants in peripheral areas; significant increases in malnutrition, diarrhoeal and kidney diseases, anaemia, cancers, and several other health problems have all been recorded.

In 1992, the five republics came to a water distribution agreement. In 1994, for the first time since the sea started shrinking, there was no decrease in sea level in comparison to the previous year. In early 1995, implementation of the Aral Sea Programme began. It aims to:

  • stabilize the environment of the Aral Sea,
  • rehabilitate the disaster zone around the Sea,
  • improve the management of international waters in
  • the basin, and
  • build the capacity of regional institutions to plan
  • and implement these programmes.


UNDP (1995), UNEP (1992b and 1994), and State Comm. for Nat. Prot. of the Rep. of Uzbekistan (1995).

Bathing waters in the region s tourist resorts tend to be closely monitored for compliance with microbial standards. Although there are many examples of beaches being closed to bathers because of contamination from inadequately treated sewage (EEA, 1995a), there are also indications of improvements. Nevertheless, bathing water contamination is still expected to result in more than 2 million cases of gastrointestinal diseases annually in Europe in a wide range of locations (WHO, 1995).

Eutrophication is considered a major problem in the Baltic, Black, and North seas and locally in the Mediterranean and Caspian. Recent evidence suggests that eutrophication of near-shore waters is occurring more frequently and seriously than in the past in many areas, including the Adriatic, Black, and Baltic seas; the west coast of Sweden; and the coast of Denmark (EEA, 1995a).

While some national marine fisheries have increased annual catches since the early 1980s, unsustainable harvesting of fish stocks and shellfish has led to the decline of many and the collapse of several fisheries in European seas. (See Figure 2.13.) North Sea catches, for example, were around 2 million tons in 1960; by the early 1970s, they had doubled to 4 million, but in recent years they have dropped back to around 2.5 million (EEA, 1995a). In addition to the direct economic repercussions of lower catches, overfishing and damaging fishing techniques have adverse impacts on non-target fish species such as benthic organisms and some cetaceans (EEA, 1995a). In the Caspian Sea, construction of numerous dams on the Volga and Kura rivers has prevented sturgeon fish from reaching their main spawning grounds. This has combined with waterway pollution and more damaging fishing methods to decimate the fish population. Landings decreased from 30,000 metric tons in 1985 to 2,100 metric tons in 1994 (UNDP/UNEP/WB, 1995). As the catch was formerly worth around US$6 billion annually, this has had a major impact on the economies of the riparian countries (UNDP/UNEP/WB, 1995).

The deterioration of the Caspian Sea area, the largest landlocked body of saltwater on earth, is a matter of great ecological and economic significance because of its extensive reserves of oil, gas, and populations of migrant birds and fish. The main factor affecting the state of the ecosystem is the sea level rise, a recurrent phenomenon throughout history, which is not yet understood. Since the late 1970s, the Caspian has risen by about 2.5 metres due to natural oscillations; surrounding countries are having problems coping with this rapid and continuous change (UNDP/UNEP/WB, 1995). All five countries of the Caspian Sea suffer from inundation of human settlements, roads, and other infrastructure (UNDP/UNEP/WB, 1995). The oil fields of Azerbaijan and Kazakstan are particularly at risk, and flooding of these areas, of agricultural land, and of waste dumps is posing a water pollution problem (UNDP/UNEP/WB, 1995).

Of more general concern is the potential sea level rise throughout the region from global warming, as the costs of protecting coastlines against inundation are likely to far outweigh any benefits from increased agricultural yields and tourism. Additionally, changes in sea surface temperatures and a reduction in sea ice as a result of global warming would have profound effects on fish migration and production patterns, particularly in the Nordic Seas (EEA, 1995a; IPCC, 1996).


Air pollution is a long-standing problem in Europe. The large-scale concentration of people and activities in urban/industrial areas has been accompanied by high emissions of a wide range of air pollutants. These are supplemented by additional pollution from dispersed sources throughout the region, including agricultural activities. Urban air quality and long-range transboundary air pollution are both major concerns in Europe. Air quality is cited as the top environmental priority by the majority of experts in CEE countries (REC, 1994). On the global level, Europe is thought to be responsible for a high proportion of many harmful substances being added to the atmosphere, including 36 per cent of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), 30 per cent of carbon dioxide (CO2), 25 per cent of SO2 and volatile organic compounds (VOC), and 21 per cent of NOx (EEA, 1995a).

For many European cities and rural areas, the information required to obtain a reliable timely overview of air pollution and its effects is still not available (EEA, 1995a). Harmonized data reporting could significantly improve understanding of current air pollution, and reliable data are needed to monitor and verify the effectiveness of control measures (WHO, 1995).

The main sources of emissions to the atmosphere are fossil fuel combustion and industry, in CEE countries, along with road transport in western cities and increasingly in cities in the rest of the region. Fossil fuel emissions include CO2, SO2, NOx, and particulate matter (PM) as well as metals and radionuclides. In the industrial sector, the producers of power, petroleum, chemicals, pulp and paper, cement, steel, and non-ferrous metal are all major emitters, with SO2, PM, and heavy metals being the most significant pollutants (EEA, 1995a). Road traffic currently accounts for 80 per cent of total traffic emissions in western Europe: it contributes over half of total NOx, 35 per cent of VOC emissions, and about 25 per cent of total energy-related CO2 emissions (EEA, 1995a). Air transport is also a cause for concern because of the relatively high energy consumption per kilometre travelled and the introduction of NOx and CO2 high up in the atmosphere, which may enhance their impact on global warming (EEA, 1995a). Other major anthropogenic sources of CO2 are combustion for power generation and land use change. Europe is responsible for around a third of global CO2 emissions, with Russia, Germany, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom being major emitters. Per capita emissions also tend to be high compared with other regions (EEA, 1995a; WRI/UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996). (See Figure 2.14.)

Industrial emission "hot spots" have shifted during this century from western Europe towards the east and south (EEA, 1995a). In CEE countries, the prevalence of heavy industry, the intensive use of low-quality fuels, and the substantial lack of modern production technologies have resulted in continued high emission levels (REC, 1994). Sulphur dioxide emissions are particularly high in the northern countries, where brown coal is burned for energy. In contrast, southern CEE countries typically experience lower levels of SO2 emissions due to a greater dependence on oil and gas for energy (Environmental Resources Ltd., 1990).

The transboundary movement of air pollutants is a problem leading to wet and dry deposition of harmful substances, to smog episodes, and to reduced air quality in locations far from their emission sources. Up to 45 per cent of Hungary s SO2 emissions are transported to neighbouring countries (Environmental Resources Ltd., 1990). The atmospheric deposition of heavy metals in Europe is generally well below emission levels, indicating that Europe contributes to deposition outside the region (EEA, 1995a). Airborne radioactivity is another pollutant prone to long-range distribution. Material released into the atmosphere from the Chernobyl accident in 1986 was measurable over practically the entire northern hemisphere (IAEA, 1996).

During the past 20 years, successful measures for reducing urban SO2, particulates, and lead emissions have included regulations on fuel for domestic heating (such as low sulphur content), the promotion of low and unleaded fuel, and restrictions on the use of cars in city centres. A series of European Community directives (see Chapter 3) to tackle emissions of acidifying substances from transport and industry led to a significant reduction in SO2 emissions in many countries (EEA, 1995b).

Parties to the Helsinki (Sulphur) Protocol of the UN-ECE LRTAP Convention were required to bring their SO2 emissions at least 30 per cent below 1980 levels by 1993 (EEA, 1995a). (See Chapter 3.) These reductions have been achieved through such measures as increased use of nuclear power, switching from coal and oil to natural gas, emission controls on large combustion installations, and technological improvements such as desulphurization of petroleum products. As Table 2.7 shows, the economic recession in CEE and the CIS has also served to lower total emissions. Over the next 20 years, dust emissions from power generation and industry are expected to decrease in CEE by at least 30 per cent as a result of technological changes and a shift in fuel use (EEA, 1995a).

In contrast, European NOx emissions have shown a slight increase in recent years (UN-ECE, 1995). Although many countries have made progress in reducing outputs from stationary sources and individual vehicles, this has been offset by increased total emissions from vehicles as overall vehicle numbers and distance travelled per vehicle have risen. A further legal instrument under the UN-ECE LRTAP Convention, the Sofia Protocol, addresses NOx emissions and is expected to lead to overall NOx reductions of 20-30 per cent during the next 10 years (EEA, 1995a).

A VOC Protocol under the UN-ECE LRTAP Convention is bringing in a stepped-up approach to controlling VOC (an ozone precursor) emissions. It has not yet been possible to detect clear trends in recent emissions, but the protocol should lead to a 15-per-cent reduction in European VOC emissions by 1999, compared with levels in the 1980s (EEA, 1995a).

Poor air quality is characteristically, though not exclusively, an urban problem. It is likely that all cities with more than 50,000 residents have air pollution problems, though exceeding the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for both short- and long-term exposures is more common in central, eastern, and southern Europe.

Large-scale winter smog episodes, caused by SO2 and PM, are most common and severe in central Europe and in all the major Siberian cities in Russia, with serious repercussions for the health of the population. The incidence of lung cancer among males living for an average of 30 years in polluted parts of Cracow, Poland, was 46 per cent higher than in residents of less polluted areas (WHO, 1995). Czech Republic records reveal 20-30 per cent higher rates of post-neonatal mortality in areas with high concentrations of total PM and SO2 (WHO, 1995). Average concentrations of the associated pollutants are up to 10 times higher in densely populated parts of the Czech Republic, eastern Germany, and southern Poland than in western Europe as a result of the high use of sulphur-rich coal and lignite for power generation and steel production (EEA, 1995a).

High tropospheric ozone concentrations (photochemical smog) tend to develop in the summer over large areas of Europe when high-pressure conditions prevail. The main precursors for this buildup are NOx and VOC emissions. In recent years, concentrations of ground-level ozone have exceeded the WHO air quality guideline for one-hour average human exposure at nearly all existing European stations (EEA, 1995a). Health problems associated with high ozone concentrations include breathing difficulties and decreased lung function (WHO, 1995). The ozone precursors themselves can induce cancers and respiratory diseases.

Long-term overshooting of critical values of harmful air constituents (SO2, PM, benzene, heavy metals, and so on) is another health hazard in the region (EEA, 1995a). While this problem has been less studied, it is known that long-term exposure can affect human health in many ways, including longevity and the incidence of cancers (WHO, 1995). Indoor air pollution may also be a significant health hazard, especially for old people and very young children, but it has not yet been clearly assessed (EEA, 1995a).

On the positive side, major improvements have occurred in the level and composition of some air pollutants in the region s cities over the past 20 years. Concentrations of SO2 in most cities are lower than in the late 1970s, in some cases by as much as 80 per cent (EEA, 1995a). As a result, the total population experiencing pollution episodes (exceeding 250 micrograms of SO2 per cubic metre) has decreased dramatically during the 1980s, from 71 per cent to 33 per cent in western countries and from 74 per cent to 51 per cent in Russia (WHO, 1995). Many cities also show downward trends in particulate concentrations.

In countries that have reduced the lead content in petrol, lead concentrations have substantially declined (EEA, 1995a). The remaining hot spots are in eastern Europe and are associated with lead-emitting industries as well as with leaded fuel (WHO, 1995). Regarding tropospheric ozone, it is anticipated that implementation of the VOC Protocol should result in a 40-60 per cent reduction in high ozone peak values and a smaller reduction (1-4 per cent) in annual average ozone concentration (EEA, 1995a).

West of the Urals, stratospheric ozone depletion is a cause for concern as densely populated areas are under direct risk from the substantial ozone decline recently detected in northern high-latitude regions. The resulting increased ultraviolet-B radiation in the lower atmosphere can have adverse impacts on human health (skin cancer, cataracts, reduced immune efficiency), on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems (reduced species survival and productivity), and on building materials (faster deterioration). As a region, Europe is in a prime position to contribute to remedial action, as it produces 35-40 per cent of the global emissions of CFCs, which destroy stratospheric ozone (EEA, 1995a).

The increase in airborne caesium-137 levels following Chernobyl has had severe consequences. In human terms, it is estimated that the accident had a devastating impact on the well-being of the 600,000 "liquidators" who worked to contain the spread of radioactivity immediately after the event; in addition, up to 9 million additional ordinary people have also been affected socially and psychologically (UNESCO, 1996). In Belarus alone, the incidence of thyroid cancer increased five times over the 10 years following the accident (Republic of Belarus, 1995). Genetic and other long-term effects may continue to reveal themselves for generations in the populations of the nations affected. Although wildlife in the vicinity of the reactor received lethal radiation doses at the time of the disaster, no sustained severe impacts on populations or ecosystems have been observed. Possible long-term effects remain to be studied (EEA, 1995a; IAEA, 1996; UNESCO, 1996).

Urban and Industrial Environments

Some of the environmental problems that arise in urban and industrial areas, such as air quality, aquifer contamination, ground-water overexploitation, and land degradation, have been addressed earlier in this section. But there are additional concerns that tend to be closely associated with urban and industrial areas. Waste management is one such issue. It has been identified as a particular priority in CEE (REC, 1994), with hazardous wastes seen as a main concern throughout the region (UNEP, 1996).

Waste generation has been on the increase in Europe and the CIS. Many urban areas, particularly in western Europe, have introduced measures for reducing waste and for recycling it when appropriate and economically viable. The average European produces between 150 and 600 kilograms of municipal waste per year, with East Europeans tending to produce less than West Europeans (EEA, 1995a). The rate of increase in municipal waste among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Europe was 3 per cent a year between 1985 and 1990 (EEA, 1995a). In CEE, the adoption of western-style consumption patterns has resulted in an increasing amount of throwaway packaging. This, in turn, has resulted in larger waste streams, consisting of plastics and non-biodegradable materials, that overburden existing waste management systems. Illegal dumping of waste exacerbates the problem in some areas.

The growing quantities of municipal waste require new landfills or alternative methods of waste disposal, such as incineration, composting, reuse, and recycling (REC, 1994). In turn, these measures may generate new problems. Incineration, for example, is instrumental in the release into the environment of some heavy metals, like mercury, and products of incomplete combustion, which include highly toxic dioxins and other persistent organic compounds (EEA, 1995a).

Agricultural and industrial wastes are produced in even greater quantities (EEA, 1995a), a significant proportion of which are considered to be hazardous. For example, 80 billion tons of solid waste have accumulated in the Russian Federation, 1.1 billion of which are toxic and environmentally dangerous (Min. of Env. Prot. and Nat. Res. of the Russ. Fed., 1994). Most countries in Europe have many thousands of contaminated sites due to improper waste disposal. Several FSU countries have a legacy of waste from industrial and abandoned military sites that received little processing (EEA, 1995a). Large quantities of waste, including toxic and even radioactive substances, were just stored in the environment, often with very weak protection. As a result, leakage and further migration of pollutants from storage places has occurred. The worst situations are found in northeast Estonia, the Donbas region of Ukraine, the Moscow region, the Urals, and Kuzbas in West Siberia (REC, 1995b).

Many contaminated sites are now being cleaned up-but at high cost. In addition, the increasing adoption of cleaner production technologies and industrial waste minimization and recycling is a positive trend. The disposal of hazardous wastes continues to be a particular cause for concern. One strategy used particularly by western European countries, which has received much attention recently, is the export of waste to other countries. There are two clear directions in the movement of hazardous European wastes: from west to east within the region and from Europe to developing countries. In 1985, OECD countries adopted some waste movement principles that were later included in the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (EEA, 1995a; WHO, 1995).

Accidents are an additional threat to humans and the environment. They are frequently linked to urban and industrial activities. A major industrial accident reporting system has shown that most recent accidents have occurred in the petroleum industry and that highly inflammable gases and chlorine were the substance most often involved. The impact of such accidents can be very widespread if the substances permeate through food chains. Specific risks to the environment or to human health vary according to the location and nature of the accident, and accidental risk management must focus on these variables (EEA, 1995a).

Life in built-up areas brings with it a number of stresses not present elsewhere-particularly those associated with air and noise pollution and traffic congestion. Being a highly urbanized region, a very large number of people are potentially at risk. For example, it is estimated that more than 20 per cent of the European population is habitually exposed to stressful noise levels (above 65 decibels) from road traffic (WHO, 1995). The urban infrastructure also has a bearing on human well-being. In many parts of Europe, the pattern of urban decline prevalent in the 1980s has been replaced by programmes of urban renewal and restructuring, to revitalize economies and improve the quality of life. Most large cities in CEE have yet to reach this stage, however (EEA, 1995a).

Continue to next section...

[ GEO-1: Home | Complete Report | Search | Feedback | Order Book | Collaborating Centres | About GEO Reports ]