Europe's environment - good news and bad

Heathrow - plane landing near field Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Plans for a third runway at Heathrow raise environmental concerns

Here’s a striking thought: in many parts of Europe, the local environment is arguably in as good a state today as it has been since the start of industrialisation.

This direct quotation leaps out of the tome produced by the European Environment Agency to assess the progress of policy from the 1970s stretching forward to 2050, when the EU aspires to be "living well within the limits of the planet".

Environmentalists are often gloomy, so it is heartening to see applause for reduced pollution, better waste management, cuts in greenhouse gases and smarter use of technology and materials.

The report says the environmental goods and services industry (created mostly by EU policy) has been one of the few highlights in Europe's business - growing 50% between 2000 and 2011.

But enough of all that good news. Europe is still struggling to protect its land. Road-building, industry and urban sprawl are encroaching. From 1990-2006, 0.81% of the production potential on arable land in the EU was lost. That number looks small - until you project it 50 years into a hypothetical future.

What is more, despite reductions in pesticide and nitrogen pollution, run-off washed from farmers' fields is still pushing nitrogen beyond critical levels in many areas - particularly in lowland Western Europe.

Image caption Soil erosion at Ross-on-Wye in the west of England: The scale of such erosion is huge across the EU

Soil erosion

The soil itself in many areas is becoming exhausted, too. Organic carbon in soil may have been over-estimated by around a quarter - that's bad news, as the carbon helps plant fertility, helps prevent floods, and once released into the atmosphere contributes to climate change.

The loss of topsoil by erosion is also worrying. The report cites a study that 130m hectares (420m acres) were affected by water erosion in the EU - that's a total area more than three times the size of Germany.

And wildlife is still struggling.

The report says 30% of common farmland birds have disappeared since 1990 because of farm intensification.

Even more striking is the loss of almost 50% of butterflies between 1990 and 2011 as grasslands were ploughed up. Only 11% of the assessments of species linked to grasslands are favourable.

The mammoth process of "greening" the Common Agricultural Policy is supposed to have protected our land and water from bad farm practice - but don't hold your breath. The report tactfully notes that the measures will depend on their implementation at national level. I think we can guess what that means.

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