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European public want more environmental protections according to new survey

August 4, 2017
Symbolique 2006

Water is a key element of EU environmental policy. Image: Symbolique 2006

Over half of the European public are in favour of more environmental protections across the continent, according to a new European Parliament survey.

53% of the 27,901 EU citizens interviewed by Kantar Public for the survey thought that existing environmental protections across Europe were ‘insufficient’. 75% of citizens thought that more policy and management interventions were necessary to protect European environments.

There is a broad geographical distribution to these findings. Three of the top five ‘insufficient’ ratings in the survey were made by people from southern European countries – Spain, Portugal and Greece – where climate change and development pressures are increasingly strong. The strongest ‘insufficient’ rating came from the Swedish public.

On the other hand, the four lowest ‘insufficient’ ratings – i.e. those who mostly saw current protections as ‘sufficient’ – came from people in the Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and in the Czech Republic. All four of these countries gained membership of the EU in 2004. Citizens from the UK and Ireland were only slightly more positive about the sufficiency of existing environmental protections.

Overall, 36% of EU citizens surveyed thought that existing environmental protections were sufficient, whilst 4% thought they were excessive.

Of the three-quarters of EU citizens who called for increased environmental protection interventions from policy makers, the three most positive respondents were again from Southern European countries – Spain, Portugal and Cyprus. All three countries have experienced water shortages in recent years (and in Spain’s case, unusual winter floods and snow) – driven by climatic trends which are projected to worsen in coming decades.

The Baltic States, Czech Republic, Poland and the UK reported the lowest enthusiasm for increased environmental protections. However, in Latvia and Estonia, the two least-positive results, over half of surveyed citizens (52% in both cases) were still in favour of increased environmental protections.

Of course, it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions on the influence of national geopolitics or environmental issues on the results of this survey – particularly when respondents were encouraged to think about the EU as a whole throughout their interviews. However, there are geographical trends in the reported results, which deserve subsequent in-depth research and analysis to properly understand.

More broadly, the survey yields a number of insights for environmental policy makers seeking to address the public appetite for environmental protections across the EU. When citizens were asked about the policy topics they would like more information on, environmental protection was the fifth most popular, after issues surrounding terrorism, unemployment, health and social security and migration.

The greatest enthusiasm for more environmental information came from citizens in Northern European countries with relatively high GDP: The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. The lowest was from the Estonian and Latvian public. Overall, these results suggest that there is scope for broader and more effective environmental science and policy communication and engagement in the EU.

There is a long-held idea in conservation practice that a person or community’s attachment to a place (what geographer Yi Fu Tuan calls ‘topophilia‘), means they are likely to support its conservation and protection. The survey reveals that EU citizens feel far more attached to their city/town/village, region and country (between 87-92% do) than they do to the EU as a whole (between 51-56% do).

This result points to a challenge for environmental policy makers and managers in designing large-scale, cross-national initiatives. One question might be in how continental-scale conservation and protection initiatives (for example, this recent Natura 2000 waterbird project) can best be justified and popularised at each of their local and regional ‘nodes’.

Finally, the survey suggests that over half (53%) of EU citizens don’t believe that their voice counts in EU decision-making processes, whilst 43% believe that theirs does. The most negative opinions came from citizens in Greece (perhaps predictably, given recent economic and migration issues), Estonia and the Czech Republic. The most positive came from citizens in The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark – the same citizens who were receptive to more environmental protections information.

According to citizens across the continent, voting in European elections is the main way (57-59% of respondents) of making your voice heard in EU decision-making. In the context of an overall public desire for more EU environmental protection initiatives, the results suggest that there is the opportunity for environmental NGOs, charities and community groups to communicate how public participation in environmental debate and action can influence EU decision making.

You can read the full survey report here, and see the data here.

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