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Publication | 8 June 2021

Understanding the Spillovers and Transboundary Impacts of Public Policies

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has been increasingly adopting systemic approaches to analyse the complex interrelations at the core of persistent environmental problems and sustainability challenges. Such systemic knowledge is fundamental to support the implementation of the European Green Deal and 2030 Agenda objectives. The chapter 8 of this publication introduces a systematic and systemic approach that can support the identification and assessment of SDG spillover effects between the EU and the rest of the world. The approach is operationalised by focusing on three complementary analytical lenses that help identify transboundary impacts, including synergies, complementarities and trade-offs: (1) drivers of change and global megatrends assessments; (2) environmental footprint approaches; and (3) systems assessments, with a particular focus on the food system.

Synergies and trade-offs within the EU

In addition to meeting various societal needs, like the provision of food and nutrition security (SDG 2), contributing to livelihoods along the food supply chain (SDG 8), the food system is responsible for a vast array of impacts on the environment through emissions of pollutants, depletion of resources, loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems in the EU and beyond (SDGs 12 to 15), indicating the existence of important trade-offs between SDG 2 and 8 on the one hand and SDGs 12 to 15 on the other. At the same time, unhealthy diets contribute to increasing levels of obesity, and more than half of the EU’s population in 2014 was estimated to be overweight. In the EU today, five of the seven biggest risk factors for premature death –high blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index, inadequate fruit and vegetable intake and alcohol abuse –relate to how we eat and drink (SDG 3 –Good health and well-being). This points to important synergies between SDG 3 and SDGs 12 to 15: healthy and sustainable diets can contribute to achieving SDG 3, while reducing pressures on the environment (SDGs 12 –15).

Transboundary effect (on the rest of the world) stemming from the achievement of the SDGs in the European Union

Through trade, European production and consumption patterns contribute significantly to environmental pressures and degradation in other parts of the world. Depending on the type of resource, the associated total environmental footprint of European consumption that occurs outside Europe is estimated to be in the range of 30–60 %. With regard to the food system, the share of environmental impacts generated outside the European countries by food consumption of households in European countries also shows an increasing trend between 1995 and 2011. However, food consumption in European countries generates relatively fewer environmental impacts abroad than the average and creates relatively more added value.

Overall, Europe is a net importer of commodities such as tropical fruits, coffee, tea, cocoa, soy products and palm oil. The former EU-28 is also the largest importer of seafood and fish products in the world. The largest proportion of food consumed in the EU-28 is still produced within the EU-28 and the majority of EU-28 trade in food and drink products takes place between EU countries. However, European production has an effect outside the EU-28 through the import of feed that is used in both livestock and aquaculture production. In 2013, Europe had net imports of around 27 million tonnes of soybeans and soybean products for oil production and animal feed. This means that Europe is dependent on overseas land for its own production. In 2011, the land footprint of soybean imports was around 11 million hectares, of which 80% was in South America. The vast majority of imported soybeans are genetically modified, which are not permitted for cultivation in the EU. In Brazil and Argentina, expanding soybean cultivation has caused losses of habitat and biodiversity, while fodder production directly competes with Brazil's well-established bioethanol production sector, creating land use conflicts.

Transboundary effects (on the European Union) stemming from the achievement of SDGs in the rest of the world

If the EU’s food system was to respond to the increase in consumption levels in developing countries by increasing its export orientation, this could imply a further establishment of the current ‘high volume and low margin’ model based on high-tech and intensive agriculture. This trend, together with the current innovation paradigm in EU policies, locks the food system into a vicious cycle of ‘techno-fixes’ and short-termism that reinforces ‘trends towards intensive, large-scale monoculture-based production’, motivated by the need to remain competitive on the international market despite their demonstrable harm and trade-offs via environmental and socio-economic issues