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EU consumers 'export' environment damage

26 January 2023

European Union consumers are 'exporting' negative environmental impacts, whilst keeping the bulk of economic benefits linked to consuming goods and services, a new study reveals.

Although the environmental impacts of consumption by EU citizens are felt around the world, countries outside of the EU have experienced the highest environmental pressures and impacts associated with EU citizens’ consumption. Large shares of 10 major environmental pressures and impacts are ‘outsourced’ to countries and regions outside the EU while more than 85% of the economic benefits remain within member countries – albeit with uneven distribution of costs and benefits within the EU.

Clearing toxic waste in Belarus (situation not related to the study) | Photo Irin Oleinik / World Bank Photo Collection
Clearing toxic waste in Belarus (situation not related to the study) | Photo Irin Oleinik / World Bank Photo Collection

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Publishing their findings today in Nature Sustainability, an international group of researchers studied the environmental indicators between 1995 and 2019. These indicators included greenhouse gas emissions, material consumption, land use, consumption of surface and ground water, particulate matter formation, photochemical oxidation and biodiversity loss due to land coverage, as well as freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecotoxicity.

Researchers found that seven analysed pressures and impacts – freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecotoxicity, greenhouse gas emissions, particulate matter formation, photochemical oxidation and material consumption – increased notably outside the EU, while decreasing within the bloc.

Researchers at the Universities of Birmingham (UK), Groningen (NL) and Maryland (US), as well as Chinese Academy of Sciences, also analysed value added by consumption of goods and services to economies of the current 27 EU member countries between 1995 and 2019.

Yuli Shan | Photo University of Birmingham
Yuli Shan | Photo University of Birmingham


‘For the sake of our planet, environmental pressures and impacts from EU consumption need to decrease substantially to reduce the export of environmental damage beyond the borders of the wealthy EU states to poorer regions’, says corresponding author Yuli Shan, associate Professor in Sustainable Transitions at the University of Birmingham.

The benefits of EU consumption are greater for most member countries than those outside the Union, whilst inducing higher environmental pressures and impacts for the EU’s eastern neighbours such as Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Ukraine and Moldova. Eastern Europe consistently ranked as the region receiving the lowest share of economic value added compared to environmental pressures and impacts associated with EU consumption.

Pressures and impacts induced by EU consumption dropped in most of its member states: for the Netherlands and Sweden, indicators in all ten categories dropped from 1995 to 2019. Austria, Czechia, Italy, Poland, Romania and Slovenia all saw decreases in nine of ten analysed environmental pressures and impacts. In contrast, all analysed impacts and pressures associated with EU consumption increased in Brazil, China, India, Japan, as well as in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Klaus Hubacek | Photo University of Groningen
Klaus Hubacek | Photo University of Groningen


First author Benedikt Bruckner from the University of Groningen adds: ‘Many super-affluent consumers who contribute disproportionally to global environmental damage and resource use live in the EU. Therefore, we must focus mitigation efforts on overconsumption.’

Co-author Christina Prell, Associate Professor in Spatial Sciences at the University of Groningen, stresses why action is needed now: ‘The patterns of global trade not only perpetuate environmental pressures on the whole planet, but also reify winners and losers with regards to wealth and environmental outcomes. For the sake of our planet, and in terms of environmental justice, we need to address not only EU consumption patterns, but also, the impacts of those patterns on poorer regions.’

Second corresponding author Klaus Hubacek, Professor at the University of Groningen, explains how the EU can reduce environmental pressures and impacts associated with over-consumption: ‘This could be done in a number of ways, including changing how people travel or their dietary choices, and by creating new EU trade policies that lower environmental pressures and impacts associated with goods and services.’

Text: University of Birmingham
Benedikt Bruckner, Yuli Shan, Christina Prell, Yannan Zhou, Honglin Zhong, Kuishuang Feng & Klaus Hubacek: Ecologically unequal exchanges driven by EU consumption. Nature Sustainability 26 January 2023

Last modified:02 February 2023 09.21 a.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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