Forward-looking assessments for better understanding of sustainability outlooks

Source: European Environmental Agency

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has recently published a report on the ‘drivers of change’ that impact Europe’s environment and sustainability’ prospects. We interviewed the project manager of the report, Lorenzo Benini who works at the EEA as system assessment and sustainability expert.

What is your role at the EEA and what kind of work does it entail?

I work in the EEA’s Integrated Assessments for Sustainability programme that develops integrated environmental assessments, such as the European environment – state and outlook report (SOER)The main focus of my own work is the development of systemic assessments, which analyse sustainability challenges and opportunities for Europe. This includes looking at connections between socio-ecological and socio-technical systems across different scales, with a forward-looking perspective, and recognising the presence of uncertainty in our knowledge.

What are forward-looking assessments?

The EEA’s forward-looking assessments look at potential future developments, for example, in environmental and sustainability outlooks. They build on a combination of established knowledge about past trends and dynamics, our understanding of interactions between different phenomena, as well as exploration of alternative futures. The future is always uncertain and more so in today’s world that is characterised by increasing volatility, complexity and ambiguity.

Still, alternative futures can be imagined, debated and pursued. This means utilising a range of quantitative and qualitative foresight studies and engaging with multiple stakeholders to develop knowledge that can support policy actions towards sustainability. In our case, we do it with our network of member countries (Eionet), policy makers, experts from different disciplines and backgrounds and, increasingly, with civil society.

What does the recent EEA report tell us?

The report ‘Drivers of change of relevance for Europe’s environment and sustainability’ explores a wide range of ‘drivers’ that could affect the future of Europe, particularly those affecting Europe’s environmental and sustainability ambitions. Overall, the report aims to provide a rich picture of the changes occurring globally and in Europe, their interconnections, as well as their possible implications.

Europe’s environment and sustainability prospects are influenced by multiple factors, creating both new risks and new opportunities. The world is increasingly interconnected and developments occurring in one part of the world may affect Europe. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis is a stark reminder of that. While the role of Europe in the global arena is changing, the EU has the opportunity to reposition itself in front of the upcoming environmental, sustainability and strategic challenges and chase the opportunities that are lying ahead, towards a more sustainable future.

What defines drivers of change?

‘Drivers of change’ differ in geographic and time scales, origin, strength and potential impact. For example, global megatrends like global population growth or climate change, are global, long-term trends that are slow to form but have a major impact. Some trends are well established and characterising Europe in particular, for example ageing or the migration from east to west. Other trends are emerging but are not yet well established, such as technological convergence and the ‘Fourth industrial revolution’. We also have so-called wild cards that are unlikely but potentially disruptive future developments. These can be major technological breakthroughs, collapse of pollinators or an outbreak of infectious diseases.

How do you see some of these trends developing?

It can be said that global environmental challenges have increased in the last 50 years and that the geography of pollution is changing across the globe, following economic growth and shifting geopolitical power, and increasing consumption levels. At the same time, the world is becoming more interconnected than ever through flows of resources, people and information, making it more difficult to ensure global environmental stewardship.

Europe is increasingly more reliant on key resources and, at the same time, is externalising a significant share of its environmental pressures. New technologies bring both opportunities and risks concerning health, environment and well-being. Values, lifestyles and governance approaches are changing across the world. While consumerism is growing, especially in emerging countries, new ideas are also being taken up by parts of the population and citizens are increasingly demanding action on environmental and sustainability challenges, in Europe and elsewhere.

How is foresight analysis used in EU and national decision-making?

In the environmental and sustainability field, foresight processes are often used to anticipate potential risks and identify opportunities for the advancement of environmental and sustainability policies. For example, the European Commission has set up a foresight system (FORENV) that aims to identify emerging environmental issues for raising awareness about their potential implications and help policy-makers and stakeholders to address them. Similar examples are found across EEA member countries. Strategic foresight has also recently gained importance in European policy-making with the establishment of a commissioner for Inter-institutional Relations and Foresight — Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič — and the EU Strategic Foresight network.

What will the EEA be doing on this theme in the near future?

The EEA is actively contributing to the FORENV process, alongside with foresight experts from our member countries and national reference centers for forward-looking information and services (NRC-FLIS). The EEA is also working on a number of foresight-related projects, often in partnership with member countries and other EU institutions. We expect to produce assessments on the implications of drivers of change for Europe’s sustainability agenda, establish a horizon scanning process for identifying emerging trends, and develop this knowledge base for the next edition of SOER.



Agencia Europea del Medio Ambiente 

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