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

Chapter 2: Regional Perspectives

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Europe and CIS Countries

Underlying Causes

[ Social | Economic ]


Europe and the CIS have relatively stable populations. Annual population growth rates are low, ranging from slightly negative up to 1 per cent (World Bank, 1996). National populations tend to be rather static, though a wave of migration, mainly east to west, has occurred since the breakup of the centrally planned economies (EEA, 1995a).

The region, apart from the FSU, is relatively densely populated and highly urbanized. With two thirds of Europeans in western and central countries already living in urban areas, current urbanization rates are low except in Turkey with around 4.5 per cent urban growth per annum (WRI/UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996). Europe s urban population lives on around 1 per cent of the total land area (EEA, 1995a). A European city of 1 million inhabitants typically consumes about 11,500 metric tons of fossil fuels, 320,000 metric tons of water, and 2,000 metric tons of food daily. It also produces 300,000 metric tons of wastewater and 1,600 metric tons of solid waste plus 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (EEA, 1995a).

Many of Europe s major concerns are linked to the highly concentrated consumption of resources and production of wastes of these densely populated areas, and to the fact that per capita production and consumption rates are among the highest in the world. For example, with less than a quarter of the world s population, the region accounts for some 40 per cent of the world s energy consumption (EEA, 1995a). Excluding the FSU, consumption of energy in Europe is greater than production; Europe is therefore contributing to energy resource depletion elsewhere in the world. The new democratic and open societies in CEE are now establishing western-style consumption patterns. In addition, the increasing number of households and the small average household size (2.7 people) in Europe tend to exacerbate this situation. Smaller households use water and energy less efficiently and require more land per household member, which leads to greater per-capita resource use (EEA, 1995a).

The enormous consumption of natural resources has now been recognized as one of the root causes for the destabilization of the ecosphere. Not only do the nature and magnitudes of inputs into human economies determine all outputs (emissions, effluents, wastes, material goods), but the very displacement of resources from natural settings by technical means leads inevitably to ecological changes. Displacements can be huge. In the former West Germany, for example, it has been calculated that more than 530 million tons of construction materials alone were moved from one location in the country to another during 1990 (Schütz and Bringezu, 1993). Therefore, precautionary environmental policies must be very much concerned with resource productivities on all levels.

The distribution of goods to meet demands is having a significant and increasing impact on the environment, especially where motor vehicles are the main form of transport (UN-ECE, 1995). Concerning private transport, western Europe now has more cars than households since the number of cars almost doubled between 1970 and 1990 (EEA, 1995a). In CEE, increasing private car ownership has overwhelmed the existing transportation infrastructure. While new road networks are now being built, the preservation and further development of public transport systems that are already in place in many cities could be better for the environment (REC, 1994).


There is an enormous dichotomy between the economies of western Europe and the rest of the region. This is key to interpreting economic root causes. Almost all of western Europe falls in the high-income group of the most recent World Bank classification-their gross national product (GNP) per capita was $8,956 or above in 1994 (World Bank, 1996). The countries of CEE and the FSU are mainly in the lower-middle-income bracket (GNP per capita between $725 and $2,895) (World Bank, 1996). Agriculture and heavy industry predominate in these economies, in contrast to the manufacturing and service industries in the west.

In 1994, GNP per capita-adjusted by the United Nations purchasing power parity-ranged from less than $1,000 for Tajikistan to more than $25,000 for Switzerland, with obvious implications for the spending power and living standards of people (World Bank, 1996). At present rates of economic growth, it has been estimated that it will take countries like Hungary and Poland 20 more years to reach the average 1994 income level of the EU countries (World Bank, 1996).

Where wage-earners are well off, it is conceivable that they will become increasingly willing to work fewer hours. In OECD Europe, the average amount of time actually devoted to work has fallen from some 3,000 hours per year a century ago to around 1,700 today (OECD, 1994). Researchers foresee this trend continuing even in countries with already relatively low average working hours. In Norway, for instance, worktime per employee is projected to fall from about 1,400 in 1991 to around 1,300 in 2010 (OECD, 1994).

Estimates of economic growth to 2002 suggest annual increases in the range of 2.5-2.7 per cent for EU, 2.6 per cent for EFTA, 3.4 per cent for CEE, and 1.3-2.0 per cent for the FSU (EEA, 1995a). More significant at the moment is the enormous difference between the long-established, buoyant, prosperous economies of western Europe and the economies in various stages of transition to the east. The political reforms in CEE and the FSU in the late 1980s and early 1990s have led to the replacement of centrally planned economies by market-oriented systems. Rates and degrees of adjustment have varied between countries, from the almost instantaneous changeover in the former East Germany to more hesitant modification in many FSU countries. The changes are all in a similar direction, however: towards price and trade liberalization, privatization, demonopolization, and the reform of tax, legal, and financial systems (World Bank, 1996).

These changes have had enormous short-term repercussions. National output fell dramatically in many transition countries. In CEE as a whole, for example, industrial output fell by over 40 per cent from 1989 to 1992 (WHO, 1995). At the same time, there was generally a sudden burst of inflation. At the personal level, poverty has increased, living standards have dropped, and inequality has reached levels similar to or greater than those of many west European countries (World Bank,1996). Some of the transition countries, like Poland and Hungary, now appear to have passed through these stages. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland are, for example, now OECD members and the Baltic countries, Slovenia and the Slovak Republic are considered to be market economies. Output and productivity have begun to increase again, and poverty rates have stabilized. Other countries, especially in the FSU, are still experiencing declines in output and high inflation.

Combined with individual sectors of the economy, these east-west differences manifest themselves in varying ways as economic drivers. The region is a major focus of industrial activity; it contains around half the world s countries with the largest outputs of industrial products, chemicals, machinery, and transport equipment and processed food (WHO, 1995). In western Europe, efficiency in energy and material use has improved substantially over the past 20 years with the introduction of improved production processes. The oil price rises of the 1970s provided a major incentive for some of these changes.

In contrast, in CEE, which was buffered from world energy prices until the late 1980s and then went into several years of economic depression, similar efficiencies have not yet been realized, although there have been marked improvements. While the per capita consumption of energy in CEE is often lower than the western European average, the relative consumption of energy per unit of product is several times higher (World Bank, 1996) due to the preponderance of heavy industry and obsolete technologies. Recent market reforms in transition economies have been accompanied by the appearance of a great many small, aggressive businesses in industrial, agricultural, and service sectors. These new enterprises often lack experience in responsible environmental management; landscapes have been marred and natural resources abused in the process (REC, 1994 and 1995b).

Data for 1994 show the share of agriculture in national economies to range from 1-3 per cent for most West European countries to more than 50 per cent for Albania and Georgia (World Bank, 1996). Although there are subregional variations, Europe is characterized by high-input farming systems. Large increases in the use of nitrogenous fertilizers and pesticides over recent decades have been major factors in increasing food production in western Europe as well as a major source of environmental contamination. In the eastern part of the region, however, applications of agricultural chemicals have dropped sharply during the economic depression of the last five years and following the breakup of collective farms.

The passenger transport sector in the region grew by 3.1 per cent a year between 1970 and 1990 (EEA, 1995a). Road transport for both passengers and freight is expected to nearly double between 1990 and 2010 (EEA, 1995a). Air passenger transport is also undergoing a rapid increase, although with the trend towards larger aircraft, the number of aircraft movements has not increased as fast as the number of passengers (EEA, 1995a).

Tourism and recreation have become important social and economic activities in Europe. Sixty per cent of the global tourist traffic is destined for Europe, with Japan and the United States being the main source areas (EEA, 1995a).The current growth in European tourism is expected to reach around 6 per cent per year by 2000, by which time there are expected to be at least 380 million arrivals per year in the region (EEA, 1995a). A large number of additional tourists originate from within the region. Although tourism may have adverse impacts on the environment in local areas, such as the degradation of mountainous tracts in the Alps or the destruction of habitats in the coastal areas of the Mediterranean, there are also positive, albeit minor, spin-offs that may indirectly benefit the environment, such as increased environmental awareness by the general public (EEA, 1995a).

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