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Academic contributes to major European environment report

A landmark report on the state of Europe’s environment features a whole chapter which draws on the work of a leading expert at Alliance Manchester Business School on how societies can transition towards more sustainable futures.

Frank Geels, Professor of System Innovation and Sustainability, has worked extensively with the European Environment Agency (EEA) in recent years as the organisation has sought to deepen its understanding of transitions research, and in 2017 he was appointed to its Scientific Committee.

Today the EEA published its latest five-yearly State of the Environment Report (SOER) which features a whole chapter on sustainability transitions in mobility, energy, and food systems, and which uses Geels’s theoretical framework (the so-called Multi-Level Perspective) as an organising framework.

Systemic change

The report says a growing body of research and practice provides insights into how fundamental systemic change can be achieved. Such transitions are long-term processes that depend critically on the emergence and spread of diverse forms of innovation that trigger alternative ways of thinking and living – such as new social practices, technologies, business models, and nature-based solutions.

Professor Geels commented: “It’s very rewarding that concepts and empirical findings from the sustainability transitions research community are finding their way into important reports like SOER-2020. The report rightly emphasises the urgency of system innovation and notes signs of hope such as heightened public attention, the groundswell of community initiatives, and improvements in many technical innovations. But it also acknowledges the role of lock-in mechanisms, resistance from vested interests, and challenges in policy coordination between domains and governance levels.”

Stark warning

SOER 2020 is the most comprehensive environmental assessment ever undertaken on Europe. It provides a stark snapshot of where the continent stands in meeting 2020 and 2030 policy targets, as well as longer term 2050 goals and ambitions to shift to a sustainable, low carbon future.

It says Europe faces environmental challenges of “unprecedented scale and urgency” and that it will not achieve its 2030 goals without urgent action over the next decade to address the alarming rate of biodiversity loss, increasing impacts of climate change, and the overconsumption of natural resources.

It does note that Europe has made significant progress over the past two decades in terms of climate change mitigation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Signs of progress are also evident in other areas, such as tackling air and water pollution and the introduction of new policies to tackle plastic waste and bolster climate change adaptation and the circular and bio-economy.

But while these achievements are significant, Europe will not achieve its sustainability vision by continuing to promote economic growth and seeking to manage the environmental and social impacts, it says. The report urges European countries, leaders and policymakers to seize the opportunity and use the next decade to radically scale up and speed up actions to put Europe back on track to meeting its medium and longer-term environmental policy goals and targets to avoid irreversible change and damage.

Thinking differently

The report also stresses the importance of how governments can enable a transition to sustainability and the need to address things differently. For example, Europe should rethink how it uses existing innovations and technologies, how production processes could be improved, how research and development into sustainability could be fostered, and how changes in consumption patterns and ways of living could be stimulated.

Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director, said: “Europe’s environment is at a tipping point. We have a narrow window of opportunity in the next decade to scale up measures to protect nature, lessen the impacts of climate change and radically reduce our consumption of natural resources.

“Our assessment shows that incremental changes have resulted in progress in some areas but not nearly enough to meet our long-term goals. We already have the knowledge, technologies and tools we need to make key production and consumption systems such as food, mobility and energy sustainable. Our future well-being and prosperity depend on this and our ability to harness society wide action to bring about change and create a better future.”

Overall environmental trends in Europe have not improved since the last EEA SOER in 2015. The assessment notes that while most of the 2020 targets will not be achieved, especially those on biodiversity, there is still a chance to meet the longer-term goals and objectives for 2030 and 2050.

*You can read the full EEA report here. Read also about Professor Geels’ work in the latest issue of the Alliance Manchester Business School research magazine.