European (Union) Environmental Policy
Despite being an organization of 27 member states, the European Union, or EU, is a world leader in environmental policy. There are several reasons for this. First, these countries are generally used to government playing an assertive, activist role, especially in comparison to the United States. Second, many of these countries, particularly in Western Europe, have long-established, stable governments and transparent legal procedures. Third, the Central European countries that have joined the EU have done so in order to obtain certain benefits; one of the benefits, as well as part of the cost, has been adhering to higher environmental standards than the former Soviet Union imposed. Finally, European culture, in general, is more secular and science-oriented than that in the United States, much of Latin America and Africa, while Eastern Europe is not industrializing with the frantic speed of China.
Geography itself plays a role as well: The EU, which comprises much of Western and Central Europe, is smaller, has a larger population and is much more densely populated than America. This means that more people, both relatively and absolutely, are exposed to climate change and environmental degradation than in America. Additionally, many countries have a political tradition of successful environmental activism that dates back to the 1970s. The result is that the EU has a European Commission on the Environment and a Directorate-General, or DG, for the Environment to the European Commissions.
According to its website, the mission of the DG is to "protect, preserve and improve the environment for present and future generations." The DG does this by overseeing the application of environmental law, investigating complaints about law-breaking and since 1992, providing some funding for projects that protect the environment.
The DG-Environment's Sixth Community Environmental Action Plan (EAP) established Europe's basic environmental framework between 2002 and 2012. According to the DG-Environment 2010, this EAP focuses on four main areas:
• Reducing the use of natural resources whenever possible, substituting sustainable for unsustainable resources, reusing and recycling. There simply is no "away" to throw things to, while using recycled products costs a fraction of the energy of making new products.
• Improving the general health of the environment and the humans in it by reducing pollution. Air and water circulate continuously, and any pollution that contaminates them will be concentrated in the creatures that breathe the air or swim in the water and the humans that eat them. Cleaner water and air reduce sicknesses and birth defects of all kinds: in mammals, including humans, fish, birds, amphibians and plants. Nations are required to coordinate the management of their river basins, in particular, because of the extreme importance of Europe's waterways to the continent's overall health.
• Stabilizing the loss of natural habitat to protect the biodiversity that remains, then increasing that biodiversity. Europe has developed in such a way that this development cannot be sustained in the immediate future. If people kill enough species or enough of the wrong individual species, they will collapse the natural environment, and environmental collapse can -- and has -- caused civilizations to collapse. Approximately 18 percent of the European Union's land mass is in protected biodiversity sites, which are managed on an international basis: These sites are not closed to human use; rather, human use is monitored in such a way that it is sustainable.
• Slowing climate change. While Europe cannot do this alone without significant cooperation from the United States and China, Europe is acting without waiting. One of the key methods of slowing climate change is to sequester carbon dioxide in forests. Restoring significant portions of Europe's old forests will, in turn, increase biodiversity and improve air and water quality.
One of the keys to reducing climate change is finding alternatives to fossil fuels; nuclear energy is the most important interim option. According to the World Nuclear Association, nuclear power provides, for example, 74 percent of France's, 52 percent of Slovakia's, 51 percent of Belgium's and 42 percent of Hungary's electrical production. However, Europe's long coastline and many rivers make wind, hydroelectric and tidal water energy attractive, feasible alternative energy sources. Meanwhile, Iceland is pioneering hydrogen fuel for automobiles and is on its way to being energy-independent, no small achievement for a resource-poor, environmentally fragile country. Finland is exploring the gasification of solid waste at very high efficiencies to provide fuel, and while solar power is associated with such Mediterranean countries as Spain and Greece, the Nordic countries are also developing ways to collect solar energy even when ambient air temperature is low.