EASAC Environment Programme
The Environment Programme provides independent and leading edge scientific assessments and advice to EU environment policy communities.
Topics are selected by EASAC Council on the basis of advice from the Environment Steering Panel and can encompass a wide range of environmental issues of priority interest to the EU (such as climate change, air and water quality, wastes and resources, biodiversity, ecosystems and sustainability). In accordance with EASAC's comprehensive quality control procedures, Environment Programme reports are submitted to external peer review before being endorsed by all of EASAC's member academies.
Since 2013, work under the auspices of the Environment Programme has comprised the following (in order of publication):
- December 2013. A major analysis of trends in extreme weather events in Europe which considers evidence for increasing frequency of extreme weather related to global warming within Europe, and the implications for national and EU adaptation strategies. This was based on a comprehensive analysis of regional data and the latest science, together with analysis of measures available for adaptation by EASAC's Extreme Weather Working Group. This comprehensive review is also available (see this link for more detailed analysis).
- November 2014. EASAC published a policy statement on shale gas and issues of particular relevance to Europe- issues related to the relatively high population density of Europe (relative to many of the countries in which shale gas has become when established), concerns over the impact on climate change from increased releases of methane, and public and community engagement.
- April 2015. A major project on the impacts of neonicotinoid insecticides on ecosystem services of importance to agriculture was released. This was a very detailed evaluation of the large amount of new evidence on the effects of neonicotinoids- not just on honeybees but on the whole range of pollinators, natural predator control and soil ecosystem services as well as biodiversity. The expert group brought together leading experts from 13 of EASAC's academies and reached clear conclusions which represented the current state of the science. The report was launched at a meeting in Brussels attended by over a hundred stakeholders and attracted substantial media coverage. The report's conclusions have since been vindicated by more recent results since the report was released. In particular, its observations that protecting honeybees was an insufficient condition for protecting other important ecosystem services, and the pervasive nature of sublethal effects. EASAC's report provided valuable input to the Commission's revaluation of the science commencing in May 2015.
- November 2015. A report updating the recent scientific developments related to climate change and global warming was published to provide advice to European policymakers ahead of the COP 21 meeting of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. This came to the conclusion that the speed of climate change was proceeding in areas faster than IPCC models had predicted, that this meant that the 2oC target should be seen as an upper limit and that a lower target should be sought in international negotiations. The COP 21 outcome was consistent with this conclusion and EASAC's recommendation.
- November 2015. A controversial issue which emerged was related to the circular economy, where the European Commission had withdrawn its earlier proposals and undertaken to provide a new policy by the end of 2015. EASAC thus established a working group in early 2015 in order to produce a commentary which should inform discussion on the contents of a circular economy policy. A comparison of EASAC's recommendation and the Commission's policy announced in December, showed two areas where both EASAC and the Commission concluded further work was urgently required, and this led to the circular economy project being continued to these other issues (see later for reports on indicators and critical materials).
- January 2016. EASAC completed a major analysis of the wide range of issues related to the general theme of 'Marine Sustainability'. This has a particular focus on the scientific aspects of a sustainable ecosystem-based approach to management of human activities, including seafood management, biodiversity protection and other marine resources. The report also comments on how the supporting science needs to be optimised, including the needs for observation, data infrastructures and relevant human-capacity building. The study was developed to be relevant to European Commission marine and maritime activities which include Horizon 2020, the Copernicus programme, the Blue Growth agenda, and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. The interim results of this were announced in time for world Ocean Day on June 8, 2015 and the full report published in January 2016.
- March 2016. This project examined the differences in greenhouse gas footprint between different sources of oil and revealed a very large range in footprints between different sources of crude oil. The initial political issue had emerged from proposals to include the greenhouse gas footprint of crude oil from Canadian tar sands, studies show that there was a wide range of GHG footprints and that footprints significantly above the average could be seen not just from unconventional sources such as oil from tar sands or oil shale, but also from some conventional sources. This report thus recommended that the EU should differentiate between oil feedstocks of different greenhouse gas intensity so that emissions from the transport sector could be properly accounted for, and market signals influence investment decisions and innovation priorities towards lower carbon sources of crude oil.
- November 2016. As mentioned above, two projects followed on from the initial examination of the circular economy. Both EASAC and the Commission had concluded that it was important to set indicators to allow progress towards a circular economy to be measured; and that issues related to critical materials were also important. EASAC carried out these studies with the assistance of the original circular economy expert group and released both reports on 30th of November 2016. In its report "Indicators for a Circular Economy", EASAC points out that measuring progress towards the circular economy is crucial, and indicators should not just be chosen because of their convenience or simplicity. They should be directly relevant to the central objectives- both the environment and European competitiveness- and also reflect what matters to the public and other stakeholders. The report analyses in detail the various options and pros and cons of different approaches to indicators and offers advice to the Commission as it considers deriving a set of indicators for the circular economy.
The second report on "Priorities for Critical Materials in the Circular Economy" looked at the issue from the point of view of economic importance, technological importance and the basic geological distribution of critical elements. This report offers some potential approaches to analysing scarcity and identifying which elements are likely to be at risk of future scarcity. It looked at the challenge of critical materials from two angles: how to increase the supply of critical materials and how to improve recycling rates for these materials. In the latter context, measures to improve the currently very low rates of recycle of critical materials are included.
- May 2017. A major project examining issues related to the 'Multi-functionality and sustainability of the European Union's forests' was released at a launch event in Brussels. This followed over two years work by an expert group led by the Council of Finnish academies, which examined the latest science related to the competing demands on Europe's forests for raw material supply and bioenergy, while protecting biodiversity and contributing positively to climate change mitigation.
This report noted that because of the wide range of services provided by forests, their management interacted with at least 10 Directorate Generals in the European Commission, as well as global policy commitments on biological diversity and climate. The report considered how forests could be managed sustainably so as to deliver optimal social, environmental and economic benefits.
With increasing demands and expectations on our forests, conflicts were emerging; such as between increased extraction of biomass from forests and the contributions made by biomass in situ to soil fertility, biodiversity and protective functions. The report found that the contribution of forests to mitigating climate change is complex and the latest science is not yet reflected in policy, so that forest policies run the risk of having perverse effects on climate. In particular, a major conflict exists between using forest biomass for large scale energy production, and as a carbon sink. Current policy fails to reflect the latest scientific knowledge and the urgency of limiting atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide to those compatible with the Paris Accord targets. Classifying all forest biomass as carbon neutral and therefore as eligible for 'renewable energy' financial incentives lacked a scientific basis, and that current policies were leading to increased atmospheric CO2 levels without adequate attention being given to the time required to reabsorb this CO2 released on combustion. Other important science-based issues included the need for a scientific base for the determination of forest reference levels under Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) regulations, and the need to prioritise the use of wood in durable commodities and construction so that the embedded carbon is stored for long periods. The report is available here.
- Work in progress. A project on examining the potential viability of technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (negative emission technologies) is underway. This is based on the projection of models that to achieve the Paris targets and limit average temperature increases to 2o C. or below, it will be necessary to physically remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. A further project examining issues related to ensuring sustainability of Europe's soils is also underway (with the assistance of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences). See our current projects page.
The EASAC Environment Programme is guided by the Environment Steering Panel (ESP) which meets twice per year under the Chairmanship of Professor Lars Walloe. Their Programme's Director is Professor Mike Norton.