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Article appeared in European Voice, March 2006 

How (and why) should world leaders include environmental concerns in their policies?

Not for everybody "Time goes by so slowly" like for Madonna. For world leaders and the environment time is actually running out. Urgent action is needed. Environmental concerns have to be included in policies. Not only because over 70% of EU-25 citizens want decision-makers to give equal weight to environmental, economic and social policies. And neither only because this majority believes that environment protection policies are an incentive for innovation and not an obstacle to economic performance, as Eurobarometer polls show. But also because it is a necessity.

Current environmental challenges are more complex and diffuse than in the past. The most pressing task is the underway climate change. Being arguably the largest challenge humanity faces in the 21st Century, it is already happening faster than previously expected. Average European temperatures have risen over the past 100 years by 0.95°C and are expected to rise by 2-6°C in this century. The impacts are already evident in regional water shortages or melting polar ice. A sea level rise by 7m if Greenland's glaciers melt or even by 100m if the Antarctic's glaciers melt might no longer be fictive horror scenarios. The ever more frequent extreme weather events already have prominent representatives such as Andrew and Katrina.
And there are other scenes of major impact. EU-Greenhouse gas emissions range from five to 25 tonnes of carbon per person, which equals up to EUR 1500/person in social costs per year. Due to air pollution-related illness Europe loses 200 million working days a year. The OECD further estimates that 6.4% of deaths and illnesses in European children are caused by outdoor pollution. A shocking number of species is threatened, including 42% of native mammals, 15% of birds, 45% of butterflies, 30% of amphibians, 45% of reptiles and 52% of freshwater fish. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75% of the world's fish stocks are over-fished.

Whoever denies that these facts mirror our devastating situation closes the eyes to reality. Effective policy measures need five to ten years to be put in place. But the harmful impacts and the time to reverse them may take up to 100 years or more. Inaction can result in very large health, social and economic costs as experiences with asbestos, acid rain, the ozone hole or polychlorinated biphenyls illustrate.

This is one of the most important lessons to learn. Leaders can no longer ignore their "silent Environment child, as its fatal disease will undermine the health of the whole family" - to use a picture by the European Environmental Bureau. Environmental protection and economic growth can go hand in hand. The European Environmental Agency's report 2005 also comes to this conclusion. The past decades showed that environmental policies, when properly developed and implemented, have led to significant and cost-effective improvements in several fields, stimulating also innovation in the development of environmental technologies and services. Long-term coherent policies can encourage the re-structuring of incentives from financial instruments. Market prices and taxes might be the instruments to reduce the rising and increasingly evident costs of using the planet's natural resources.

European public is ready to take action. This is the opportunity for political leaders to set examples. By supporting environmental protection strategies and by including them horizontally in their policies, they can underline the importance of the environment for Europe's future welfare and initiate necessary behavioural changes.

The alarmingly one-sided Lisbon Strategy cannot be the figurehead for the European Union. Instead of a standstill and rollback in environmental policies we need a leap forward. The evidence is clear. On present trends economic losses from environmental stress could exceed the total value of human production in just two generations. But a healthy environment and healthy citizens are of innumerable use to the economy.

Europe can and should take the lead for a clean, clever and competitive future. It can also be the stimulus for discussions on UN level. Together with UN-conventions, the support of non-parliamentary initiatives like the to-be launched World Future Council and of course NGOs, the EU could finally bring economic development in line with the Earth's carrying capacities and act in accordance with a saying by Michael Gorbatschow: "Environmental protection is not everything, but without environmental protection everything is nothing."