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Europe’s environment: the power of data and knowledge

Europe collects increasingly more data, enhancing our understanding of the environment. Earth observation data obtained through the European Union’s Copernicus programme presents new challenges and opportunities to improve our environmental knowledge. Combining up-to-date Copernicus data with our existing knowledge base, the European Environment Agency (EEA) aims to empower policy makers and citizens across Europe in taking measures to address local, national and global challenges.

Since the first pieces of environmental legislation were adopted in Europe in the 1970s, public authorities have been monitoring and recording different elements to understand environmental issues and trends. In some cases, even citizen groups, such as birdwatchers, have collected data to support nature conservation. EU legislation often sets specific parameters to measure progress towards the targets set in the legislation. Today, European countries monitor and report significant amounts of comparable data, ranging from greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere to municipalities’ recycling rates.

The knowledge and understanding of environmental issues have gradually grown along with the number of data flows on specific issues. As our knowledge grew, so did our awareness and understanding of the strong links between thematic and sectoral observations. Consequently, European policies have evolved from issue-specific legislation to wider, systemic policy packages.

Mainly through its Eionet network, the European Environment Agency currently works with more than 100 different data flows involving up to several hundred institutional partners in 39 countries. These highly comparable and coherent data sets have helped us understand some key issues affecting the state of Europe’s environment.

Understanding the knowns and the unknowns

Despite these significant gains in our knowledge, observations and data streams still remain to some extent fragmented across topics, time and space. Almost all the assessments we have published in recent years, including our latest state of the environment report (SOER 2015), stress the complex and global nature of key environmental problems, as well as the interlinkages between them. It is impossible to understand air pollution without considering what happens on land and in the oceans. Similar limitations exist when we focus on an area.

For example, thousands of monitoring stations across Europe collect air samples at a given frequency, analyse and report concentration levels of key air pollutants. This data flow is a major step towards a better understanding of the quality of the air we breathe. Nevertheless, it remains limited to time-specific readings that are only fully relevant within meters of that monitoring station.

The air quality in the areas between monitoring stations has been relatively unknown until recently. Satellite observations and increasingly more accurate computer modelling of big data are changing this – and not only for air quality monitoring.

Combining satellite and in-situ data: Copernicus

The European Union has been investing in earth observation through its Copernicus programme, which involves not only high-resolution satellite imagery but also in-situ observations collected through sensors on the ground and in the soil, weather balloons, buoys and deep ocean sensors, for example. Copernicus satellites can monitor and transmit a large spectrum of earth observation data, ranging from the chemical composition of the atmosphere to changes in vegetation during the growth season. All Copernicus data and information products are accessible online and free of charge.

Copernicus is organised around six services: atmosphere, marine environment, land, climate change, emergency management, and security. The European Commission is responsible for the overall coordination, while the implementation of individual core services involves all the main key earth-observation actors in Europe. Since 2012, the European Environment Agency has been coordinating the pan-European and local components of the land monitoring service, supporting applications in a variety of domains, such as spatial planning, forest management, water management, nature conservation, and agriculture. The EEA is also coordinating the Copernicus in-situ component across all core services.

The potential of what we can collectively achieve with these data is immense. By combining an increasing number of data sets, we are able to understand better what is happening where, why it is happening, and who will be affected by it and how. Imagine monitoring changes in water quantity in areas across Europe as detailed as 10 by 10 meters, or how the crop production will be affected in the short run and when factoring in the long-term impacts of climate change. Our Air Quality Index with up-to-the-minute data could be developed further to include accurate air quality projections with shifts in wind or other weather patterns factored in.