State of the environment 2020: German Environment Agency draws a mixed picture

Only a few indicators receive positive evaluation

a tractor with trailer spreads slurry on a fieldClick to enlarge
Liquid manure spreading
Source: Hans van der beele / Thinkstock

The "Environmental Monitor" for 2020 from the German Environment Agency (UBA) draws a mixed picture of the state of the environment in Germany. The Environmental Monitor covers ten key topics including climate, water and air to energy and transport, each with three key indicators each. While there have been recent improvements in air quality or greenhouse gases, other indicators fare poorly. "Short-term improvements such as the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions should not blind us to the considerable need for action to protect the environment, for example our waters," said UBA President Dirk Messner. All three indicators of the Environmental Monitor for water are in the red zone of the spectrum.

Only seven percent of rivers are in good ecological condition and thus fail to meet the objective of the Water Framework Directive. The limit value for nitrate load in groundwater was exceeded at almost 16 percent of all measuring stations and has done so for years. The main reason is the excessive nutrient concentrations in groundwater somewhat for which agriculture is the main input source. The extent to which the new Fertiliser Ordinance in force since May 2020 will reduce pollution will emerge from the planned impact monitoring. The German Environment Agency recommends that environmental services, such as riparian zones and ecological management, be rewarded through EU agricultural subsidies instead of flat-rate area payments. The expansion of organic farming also shows signs of positive effects on water quality, yet the goal of reaching a 20% share of total agriculture is distant indeed. Lower consumption of meat would make inroads into reducing nitrogen inputs to the environment from the agricultural sector.

For land area and land/terrestrial ecosystems, the Environmental Monitor registers values in the orange/yellow zone. The increase in settlement and transport area has to be limited to 20 hectares per day by 2030. From 2015 to 2018, there was an average of 56 hectares per day of new settlement and transport land taken up. If the trend of recent years continues, the target would be reached by 2030. However, terrestrial ecosystems are at risk: 68 percent of the area of sensitive ecosystems in Germany was threatened by excessive nitrogen inputs in 2015. Moreover, the indicator for biodiversity and landscape quality has actually deteriorated in the last 10 years.

The situation in other areas is somewhat more favourable. For example, air quality has improved steadily in recent years. 2020 marked the second year in which there was no exceedance of the particulate matter limit. However, the German Environment Agency does not consider the limit values sufficient to protect human health and recommends their revision.

The topic area "climate" shows the indicators for hot days and global air temperature in the red zone. Although greenhouse gas emissions have declined recently, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was significant. The transport sector in particular is expected to show an upward trend in emissions as mobility returns to pre-pandemic levels.

"It is poor strategy to rest on the laurels of short-term effects in our handling of global environmental crises. Nature and the atmosphere cannot be restored so quickly. Achieving long-term environmental goals is more important. The time to kick off sustainable and progressive development is now. The crisis provides an opportunity for an ecological transition. I see a major opportunity in linking the recovery from the pandemic with the fight against climate change and the other environmental crises," said UBA President Dirk Messner.

See the full report (in German) for an evaluation of the other topics and indicators.