Written by Anne Altmayer,
Our natural environment has improved measurably since the European Community first took up its environmental policy in the early 1970s. These improvements are a result of the comprehensive EU environmental legislation, which is applicable in all Member States alike. EU environmental policy is committed to protecting natural resources essential to human health and well-being, as well as to safeguarding nature with its wide range of benefits.
Healthy natural resources
Every living being depends on safe water for its survival. On average, each European uses 100-200 litres of tap water a day. To ensure that water can be consumed safely everywhere in the EU, the Drinking Water Directive has set a number of quality standards providing limit values for substances or micro-organisms that could endanger human health. Over 98.5 % of EU drinking water meets these standards. Bathing water in lakes and seas is potentially exposed to risks, for instance, of pollution by bacteria, and is therefore subject to quality standards set by the Bathing Water Directive. In 2015, 96 % of bathing water sites across Europe met the minimum requirements, and more than 84 % were classified as having excellent water quality. In addition to the international Blue Flag for beaches, specific signs indicate the quality of bathing water across the EU.
Rivers and lakes in European urban areas used to be under particular pressure due to pollution and flow alteration, but are currently coming back to life. For instance, many fish species have returned to the River Rhine, just as they have to the rivers in Paris, London, Dublin and Stockholm. In some cities, such as Copenhagen and Munich, it is now possible once again to bathe in the waters close to the city centre.
Thanks to European water protection legislation, freshwater bodies today are much cleaner than they were 25 years ago. The Water Framework Directive – the centrepiece of EU water protection policy – requires EU Member States to achieve a good status for all surface water and groundwater bodies, allowing only a slight deviation from natural, undisturbed conditions. To reach this goal, Member States must keep on tackling issues such as pollution and over-abstraction.
Protected areas for the good of nature and people
Many areas within the EU belong to a nature protection network, known as Natura 2000. It covers about 18 % of the EU’s land area and 6 % of EU seas and is the largest coordinated nature protection network in the world. With its aim being to safeguard Europe’s most valuable and threatened species as well as their habitats, the network is crucial to EU nature protection policy. In 2016, the European Parliament expressed concern about the ongoing loss of wild species, and urged the European Commission and the Member States to give higher priority to nature protection. Safeguarding EU nature is not only an end in itself. Communities of plants, animals and micro-organisms, alongside their non-living environment, provide services, such as production of food and medicines, pollination, climate regulation, flood protection and soil fertility, which are of vital importance to humans and society.
 According to tests carried out between 2011 and 2013.
This note has been prepared by EPRS for the European Parliament’s Open Days in May 2017.
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