The protection and conservation of the environment is essential for human well-being, biodiversity, and sustainability. Environmental research encompasses a multitude of topics with the primary aim of understanding the environment we live in and to decrease damaging impacts on life.
Some detrimental environmental factors that may impact human health are air quality, water quality, insufficient sanitation, and hazardous chemicals. These can cause “respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, cancer, asthma and allergies, as well as reproductive and neurodevelopmental disorders”. In Europe, air pollution reduces life expectancy by around one year on average . Although our understanding of harmful chemicals and pollutants has never been higher, more research to identify and limit their impact is vital.
The effect of humans on their surroundings is a fundamental aspect of environmental research. Land is a finite resource, which needs to be managed effectively and sustainably. Almost 80% of Europe’s land has been designated for human activity (infrastructure, production, settlement), making it one of the most intensively used continents in the world . This ever-increasing need for more land can result in conflicting demands. A combination of efficient and evidence-based policy coupled with thorough research is essential for ensuring effective land use and managing environmental concerns.
Half of Europe’s land is used for agricultural processes. The intensification of these processes has led to a multitude of issues, including:
- soil erosion – 15% of EU land is affected by soil erosion from wind or water
- water pollution with most of Europe’s waters now characterised by a nitrogen surplus
- biodiversity loss – agricultural processes are linked to biodiversity loss, which can be reduced by switching to lower-intensity practices
- greenhouse gas emissions – agriculture is responsible for roughly 10% of EU GHG emissions and
- pesticide damage – developing organic farming practices and policies are needed to reduce unwanted damage as a result of pesticides 
Another key area of environmental policy, research and innovation is the reduction of waste and the transition towards a circular economy, which aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible rather than throwing them away. Waste is generated at all stages of product life cycles (extraction, production and distribution, consumption of products and services, treatment ). If improperly managed, these can have negative consequences on human health and the environment. Nevertheless, the EU emits 5.2 tonnes of waste per capita (2008); the mining and manufacturing sectors are the largest net contributors.
The trend in EU policy is towards increased recycling/composting rates and incineration to generate energy; yet, 37% of all municipal waste is still landfilled . To that end, the development of a circular economy aims to ‘"close the loop" of product life cycles, encouraging recycling and re-use’.
Current EU policy
The European Union’s 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP) guides environmental policy until 2020. The three main objectives of the EAP include: protecting and enhancing the EU’s natural capital; creating a competitive low-carbon economy; and, protecting EU citizens from environmental risks to health and well-being. Overall themes include protecting biodiversity, increasing sustainability, and reducing negative risks and impacts. A further aim is to provide integration between the EAP and other programmes which specifically focus on EAP subsections. Finally, the EU aims to fully integrate environmental requirements and considerations into other policies; for example, within industry, energy, agriculture, fisheries and transport .
Extensive policies are in place to ensure the EAP’s objectives can be met. These include the Common Agricultural Policy, Thematic Strategy on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources, Circular Economy Package, Rural Development Policy, Clean Air Package, Water Framework Directive, Urban Environment Strategy, Coastal Zone Policy and the Resource Efficiency Roadmap.
Within the coming decades, major environmental challenges need addressing to ensure the EAP’s long-term goal to “live well, within the planet’s ecological limits” is reached. These challenges include:
- constructing a circular economy to support a more sustainable society
- biodiversity protection to ensure the continuation of services supplied by nature, i.e. crop fertility
- combating climate change by reducing GHG emissions
- increasing air quality to reduce negative health effects
- increasing and maintaining good water quality levels across all water forms
- agricultural development to support a growing population and
- developing early-warning systems to protect against hazards
EGU environmental research areas
EGU research covers many environmental topics (listed below – links provide additional information on selected topics). In addition, the EGU general framework comprises several divisions relating to environmental research, including: Atmospheric Sciences; Biogeosciences; Climate: Past, Present & Future; Cryospheric Sciences; Earth Magnetism & Rock Physics; Energy, Resources and the Environment; Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Petrology & Volcanology; Hydrological Sciences; Natural Hazards; Ocean Sciences; Seismology; Soil System Sciences.
Specific EGU research areas relating to the environment involve:
- air quality
- climate & weather
- energy resources
- land use
- marine and coast sciences
- nature and biodiversity
- sustainable development
- urban environment
- waste management & disposal
- water resources & quality
Recent EGU papers
Most EGU journals encompass environmental research topics. Some recent published papers are listed below.
- Permafrost degradation and nitrogen cycling in Arctic rivers: insights from stable nitrogen isotope studies (BG, 2023)
- Droughts can reduce the nitrogen retention capacity of catchments (HESS, 2023)
- Transforming living labs into lighthouses: a promising policy to achieve land-related sustainable development (SOIL, 2022)
- The climate impact of hydrogen-powered hypersonic transport (ACP, 2022)
- Highest methane concentrations in an Arctic river linked to local terrestrial inputs (BG, 2022)
With special thanks to Edvard Glücksman, Senior Environmental & Social Specialist at Wardell Armstrong, for helping to draft this webpage.
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