Europe's Environmental Achievements

Read this timeline. How do you think that attitudes towards environmentalism have changed in Europe since the 1970s? Do you see a marked increase in environmental action since the 1970s?


In 35 years, the European Union's environmental policy has made huge strides. Initially, policy focused on the development of a vast body of environmental legislation, dealing mostly with technical standards. Gradually, the spectrum of policy tools has broadened, such as the introduction of the use of market-based instruments.

Environmental concerns are also increasingly being integrated into other policy areas, such as energy, agriculture, and transport. This helps to prevent the problems at their source instead of using end-of-pipe solutions only.

Today, the European Union (EU) sustainable development strategy provides the overarching long-term framework, aiming at synergies between economic, social, and environmental goals. The European Union (EU) has established environmental cooperation with its new eastern and southern European neighbors. It has taken environmental leadership globally.

European environmental protection legislation works, when it is fully implemented and enforced. Without it, our environment would look quite different.

For example:

  • lead would still be being pumped into the air from much of our car fleet;
  • chlorofluorocarbons would have further depleted the ozone layer;
  • nitrogen oxide emissions from road transport would be 10 times higher;
  • life in our rivers, lakes, and estuaries would still be choked by effluent, not to mention the unsavory prospect of bathing in coastal waters polluted by sewage;
  • increasing swathes of land would be eaten up by expanding landfills for waste – waste incinerators would not be operating to such strict standards.



The immediate post-war decade sees the gradual development of the idea of a European Community. This culminates in the signing of the Rome Treaty on March 25, 1957, creating the European Economic Community (EEC) or "Common Market".

The guiding principle is that people, goods, and services should be able to move freely across borders. Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands are the six founding members.

The Cold War between East and West dominates political agendas globally and is set to do so for 40 years. We see the first nuclear power plants and accidents, yet the environmental movement has not emerged as a political force. Europe experiences a baby boom.

1950 – On May 9, 1950, Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, presents a plan for closer cooperation. May 9 is now celebrated as "Europe Day".

1951 – Six countries (Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg) sign a treaty to cooperate in running their key heavy industries, i.e. coal and steel. In this way, the raw materials of war are brought under common management.

1952 – The "Great London Smog" episode kills thousands. It will lead the United Kingdom (UK) government to introduce the first Clean Air Act (1956).

1954 – The first nuclear power plant grid started operations at Obninsk in the Soviet Union.

1957 "The six" extend their cooperation to other economic sectors. They sign the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community (EEC) or the "Common Market".

1957 – The first significant nuclear accident occurs in October at Windscale in northern England.

1958 – The first reliable and continuous measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide begin at Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory. Carbon dioxide, CO2, concentrations are found to be 315 parts per million and rising.



It is a time of prosperity and pop culture. The East-West divide is put sharply into focus by the building of the Berlin Wall.

In 1962 the publication of the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson alerts a large audience to the environmental and human dangers of pesticides. It sparks environmental awareness.

We see the first large oil spills from supertankers, but also the founding of the first international environmental Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Nuclear proliferation and photos of Earth from space emphasize the consequences of technological achievements, as well as Earth's truly fragile place in the Universe.

1960 – The European Economic Community (EEC) launches its Common Agricultural Policy. To date, it still accounts for about 45 percent of the European Union (EU) budget.

1961 – Yuri Gagarin, a Russian astronaut, becomes the first man in space.

1961 – The Soviet Union builds the Berlin Wall

1961 – The Antarctic Treaty comes into force. Its aim is to ensure scientific cooperation and to prevent Antarctica from becoming the focus of international argument over ownership. 39 countries are signatories.

1961 – World Wildlife Fund is founded, an international organization for the conservation, research, and restoration of the natural environment.

1962 – The book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson alerts a large audience to the environmental and human dangers of pesticides. It sparks the environmental movement.

1963 – Signing of the Berne Accord, a transboundary cooperation to protect the River Rhine.

1967 – The first supertanker accident, as the "Torrey Canyon" runs aground between the Scilly Isles and Land's End in England. 120,000 tonnes of oil leaks, killing most of the marine life along the whole of the south coast of Britain and the Normandy shores of France.

1967 – Directive on classification, packaging, and labeling of dangerous substances.

1969 – The Icelandic summer-spawning herring stock collapses as a result of high fishing pressure and deteriorating environmental conditions.

1969 – American Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to walk on the Moon. Iconic images of the Earth as seen from space and the Moon enter world history.



This is the decade of the environmental movement, with the creation of the first green parties and the setting up of the first environment ministries in government.

The Club of Rome publishes The Limits to Growth, a book that stresses the importance of the environment, and the essential links with population and energy.

The first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment leads to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme. The European Economic Community (EEC) adopts its first Environment Action Programme, and starts developing a vast body of Community environmental legislation.

An oil price shock is sparked by the Arab–Israel war and triggers action on energy efficiency. An explosion near Seveso, Italy, releases a toxic cloud containing dioxin. The first World Climate Conference takes place. A panel on climate change set up by the National Academy of Sciences in the USA advises that "A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late".

Membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) grows to nine with the accession of Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

1970 – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is established.

1971 – The international environmental organization Greenpeace is founded in Vancouver, Canada.

1972 – The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment is held in Stockholm. This leads to the creation of government environment agencies and the UN Environment Programme.

1972 – European Union (EU) environmental policy was formally founded through the European Council declaration made in Paris in October 1972.

1972 – The European Union (EU) adopts its first Environment Action Programme, based on the idea that prevention is better than cure and the "polluter pays" principle. The first environment ministries are established.

1972 – The Club of Rome publishes The Limits to Growth. It stresses, for the first time, the importance of the environment, and the essential links with population and energy.

1973 – In January, Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom join the European Community, bringing membership up to nine.

1973 – A small Environment and Consumer Protection Service is set up and attached to the European Commission department for industrial policy and a Standing Committee on the Environment is created in the European Parliament.

1973 – The Arab–Israeli war of October leads to an oil price shock and economic problems in Europe, sparking action on energy efficiency. Car-free Sundays are organized throughout Europe.

1974 – Scientists suggest for the first time that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) may be causing a thinning of the ozone layer.

1975 – The Community starts building its body of environmental legislation with the adoption of – among others – the Waste Framework Directive (1975), the Bathing Water Directive (1976), and the Birds Directive (1979).

1976 – An explosion occurs on July 10 at a chemical plant near Seveso, north of Milan in Italy. A toxic cloud containing dioxin contaminates a densely populated area. In 1982, the Seveso Directive is issued to prevent major accidents with dangerous substances.

1978 – Oil tanker Amoco Cadiz spills 68 million gallons off the coast of France.

1979 – A partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in the USA puts the future of nuclear energy in question.

1979 – The first World Climate Conference takes place in February in Geneva, Switzerland. A panel on climate change set up by the National Academy of Sciences in the USA advises that a "wait-and-see" policy may mean waiting until it is too late to avoid significant climate changes.



Green parties, some of which had emerged in the early 1970s, start to make political breakthroughs. Following the advent of direct elections to the European Parliament, greens take their first elected seats there.

In 1986, an uncontrolled chain reaction in a reactor in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 80 miles north of Kyiv, causes explosions that blow off the reactor's lid. It is one of the biggest industrial accidents of all time.

The International Panel on Climate Change is set up and the Montreal Protocol is adopted, regulating the phase-out of ozone-depleting substances. The Brundtland Report defines sustainable development and outlines the changes in policy needed to achieve it.

The European Community expands to twelve Member States and regains momentum through the Single European Act, which devotes an entire section to environmental policy.

The European Commission establishes the first European-wide system for environmental data collection. This will later inspire the creation of the European Environment Agency.

1980+ – The European Union (EU) continues to build the main body of its environmental legislation with the adoption of key pieces of legislation such as the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive (1985).

1980 – The German Green Party is founded, and enters parliament for the first time in 1983.

1981 – Greece becomes the 10th Member State of the European Union (EU), Spain and Portugal follow five years later.

1981 – The European Commission creates its Environment Directorate-General.

1983 – The United Nations (UN) appoints the World Commission on Environment and Development. It is chaired by Norwegian Prime-Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.

1983 – The UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution enters into force.

1985 – The European Commission establishes the Corine programme (Coordination of Information on the Environment), the first European-wide system for environmental data collection. This will later inspire the creation of the European Environment Agency.

1985 – First observation of an ozone hole over Antarctica.

1986 – On 25 April, an uncontrolled chain reaction in a reactor in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 80 miles north of Kyiv, blows off the reactor's lid. More than 31 workers die instantly and around 135,000 people are evacuated from the surrounding area. A plume of radioactive fall-out drifts over the western Soviet Union, eastern and western Europe, and eastern North America.

1987 – The Brundtland Commission's report, Our Common Future, defines sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

1987 – The Single European Act incorporates environmental protection into the Treaty of Rome. The year is designated as the European Year of the Environment.

1987 – The United Nations (UN) adopts the Montreal Protocol, which commits the signatory countries to phase out, by 2000, substances that deplete the ozone layer in the atmosphere.

1988 – The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is established by the World Meteorological Organisation and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Its aims are to review scientific research and provide governments with advice on climate problems.

1989 – The collapse of communism across central and eastern Europe is symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall.



This is the decade of international commitments to sustainable development and of the consolidation of the importance of environmental information. The United Nations (UN) holds a summit on the environment and development in Rio de Janeiro. The Agenda 21 programme is adopted.

The European Environment Agency sets up an office in Copenhagen. Its aim is to provide independent, reliable, and comparable environmental information for decision-makers and the public.

The Aarhus Convention is a milestone in the push for access to environmental information.

The European Community becomes the European Union (EU) through the Maastricht Treaty, which also strengthens the role of the European Parliament in making environmental policy. Later, the European Union (EU) adopts the Amsterdam Treaty, which states that environmental protection requirements are to be integrated into Community policies and activities.

Membership of the European Union rises to 15 with the accession of Austria, Finland, and Sweden, seen by many as pioneers in environmental policy.

1990 – East and West Germany are united in October.

1990 – A Council Regulation is issued establishing the European Environment Agency and the European environment information and observation network (Eionet).

1990 – The first report of the International Panel on Climate Change sparks the beginning of formal negotiations towards an international agreement on climate change.

1990 + – Adoption of, among others, the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (1991), the Habitats Directive (1992), the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (1994), the Air Quality Framework Directive (1996), and the Integrated Pollution Prevention Control Directive (1996).

1991 – The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe initiates the Environment for Europe process with the first pan-European conference of environment ministers at Dobris, Prague.

1992 – At the United Nations (UN) summit on the environment and development in Rio de Janeiro, the Agenda 21 program is adopted. The Community and its Member States sign the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biodiversity.

1992 – The European Union's (EU) Fifth Environment Action Programme puts integration of environment into other policy areas at its core, signaling a shift from purely regulatory measures to an emphasis on economic and fiscal measures.

1993 – The Maastricht Treaty enters into force, creating the European Union (EU).

1994 – The European Environment Agency sets up an office in Copenhagen in 1994. It aims to provide independent, reliable, and comparable environmental information for decision-makers and the public.

1994 – The first genetically-modified food crop is released on the market. It remains a strongly controversial environmental issue.

1995 – The European Economic Area (EEA) publishes its first pan-European state of the environment report, the "Dobris" report.

1995 – The European Union (EU) gains three new member states (Austria, Finland, and Sweden), seen by many as pioneers in environmental policy.

1996 – The European Economic Area (EEA) publishes its first report on environmental taxes.

1997 – The Kyoto Protocol is adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on December 11. It sets specific targets and deadlines to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

1998 – European Economic Area (EEA) publishes Europe's environment: the second assessment. It supports the fourth ministerial conference in Aarhus, Denmark, in June 1998.

1998 – The UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (the "Aarhus Convention") is adopted at the Fourth Ministerial Conference in the "Environment for Europe" process.

1998 – At a meeting in Cardiff, Europe's leaders invite sectors such as agriculture, transport, and energy to develop appropriate environmental strategies.

1999 – The Amsterdam Treaty enters into force, requiring that environmental protection be integrated into the definition and implementation of Community policies and activities, with a view to promoting sustainable development.

1999 – The European Economic Area (EEA) publishes Environment in the European Union at the turn of the century.


The Next 50 Years

Major environmental challenges remain. The unsustainable development of some key economic sectors is still the major barrier to further improvements.

  • We face increasing urbanization and land abandonment.
  • Climate change is already here.
  • Progress on energy demand management is slow.
  • We are healthier, but exposure to pollutants remains.
  • We are depleting our natural resources.
  • We are losing biodiversity at an alarming rate.
  • We are increasingly exporting our environmental impacts to other continents.

Technology still has a vast potential to reduce environmental impacts. European policy-makers are however coming to realize that widespread behavioral changes are required in order to move towards a sustainable society.

If we want to seriously address Europe's sustainability, we need a long view, far beyond two or three legislative cycles. Climate change, globalization, and demographic change are just a few factors that will profoundly change the context of policy-making in the future.

We need to take the possibility of different outcomes into account when making strategic decisions.

Source: European Environment Agency,
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Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2021, 12:47 PM