In order to monitor the environment and climate in Europe, analyse the results and communicate new knowledge and insights, the European Environment Agency has a network of topic centres, each focusing on a specific aspect of European environment and climate policy.  VITO is involved in four of these European Topic Centres (ETC), in two of them even as coordinating partner.

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The European Environment Agency (EEA), based in Copenhagen, is tasked with monitoring the state of the environment and the climate in Europe and with reporting and communicating the results. The environment information that the EEA produces in the form of assessments and the new knowledge it gains from analysing the data collected are used by policy bodies, such as the European Commission, to prepare and implement new legislation or to adapt existing rules.  The scope of the EEA's monitoring and reporting task is thus very broad, and is geographically even more extensive than the EU, as non-EU countries such as Norway, Turkey and Switzerland are also members.

Form of outsourcing

In addition to its own employees, the EEA also relies on its partners within Eionet, a pan-European network for environmental information and observation.  An important part of this network are the so-called European Topic Centres, or ETCs, which are organised around specific themes, such as climate adaptation and mitigation, circular economy and human health & environment.

Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the EEA comments on the ETC’s:  ‘The European Topic Centres are essential for the work of the EEA. Through the ETC partners we connect to the best available knowledge and environmental assessment capacities across the member states. This connection with knowledge institutions at the level of the member states is critical for the EEA, but also brings benefits for the partners that are involved. The exchange of knowledge, co-creating environmental assessments and the close connection to European policies is of high value to those involved.  VITO is one of our key ETC partners, being in the lead of two topic centres with further involvement in two more. The experience and commitment built up over years is much appreciated by the EEA, and illustrates the strength of VITO at the European level. I have to admit that as a Belgian-Flemish director of the EEA, it also makes me proud to see such prominent role for VITO.’ 

The ETCs, funded by the EEA, can be seen as extensions of the central agency in Copenhagen.  Within Eionet, they are part of a very deliberate strategy to gather information and knowledge very close to the source - at Member State and regional level,' says Evelien Dils of VITO.  'You could call it a form of outsourcing, whereby the ETCs work with environmental and climate data provided by relevant national governments.'

VITO is part of four of the current eight ETCs

VITO has been very active in the ETC operations for many years.  And this will remain so. Since early 2022 and at least until 2026, VITO has been, and will be, part of four of the current eight ETCs.  In two of them, it is even the lead (coordinating) partner.  Thus, VITO remains very closely involved in monitoring, and reporting on, the environment and climate in Europe.  

The information and knowledge generated in the ETC network do not flow in one direction to Copenhagen.  Nor is there any strict top-down management from the EEA.  Rather, within the framework of Eionet, there is an interaction between the EEA, the ETCs and European countries.  'There are also plenty of useful things that we gain from the EEA,' explains Dils.  'Countries can, for example, use the network to obtain useful information about specific policy measures that other countries are already applying.  

The ETCs are linked to the EEA via a framework contract and can consist of knowledge organisations such as VITO, but also of other bodies such as public authorities.  Dils: 'A wide diversity is an asset, because it enhances the cooperation.'  A broad European spread is also a bonus.  'Although, of course, the in-house expertise is the deciding factor.'

Shifting priorities

Since 2014, Dils has been VITO's representative in successive ETCs on waste management and sustainable materials management.  In early 2022, these topic centres evolved into an ETC on circular economy (ETC CE), in which VITO also is the coordinating partner.  In the coming five years, this ETC will support the EEA in further developing the knowledge base for an accelerated transition to a circular economy in Europe. The work programme includes monitoring and mapping existing circular policy measures, research into the introduction of an effective waste policy, and gathering expertise on material and raw material flows and their environmental impact. 

Although the ETC CE has only just started to use 'circular' in its name, its content is very much in line with previous ETCs.  'The evolution reflects (political) developments and shows how priorities are shifting within Europe,' says Dils.  'In 2014, for example, circular economy was not yet a commonly used term.  The European Commission's first action plan on circular economy only dates from 2015, but now circularity is one of the important pillars of the European Green Deal.'

How does an ETC work in practice?

'Each topic centre has an annual plan that lists an extensive range of tasks,' says Jos Bessems of VITO. 'For each task, a person is appointed within the consortium (the collective of partners that makes up the ETC) who also gives feedback to a project leader of the EEA itself.'  Bessems is involved in the ETC HE, in which, among other things, the impact of environmental pollution on human health is reported.  Within this ETC, data will be collected in the coming years in order to arrive at objective indicators for all kinds of pollution: from soil contamination and noise pollution by traffic to industrial emissions.  'We want to develop indicators that grant an insight into possible health damage and disease burden, such as annual death tolls from cancer or new asthma patients.  'Another important aspect is that we can visualise the indicators, which contributes to the EEA's communication assignment.'  

The two other ETCs in which VITO is involved are the ETC CM (on climate mitigation) and the ETC CA (on climate adaptation and land use).  VITO is also the coordinating partner in the ETC CM.  'We monitor the progress Europe is making in achieving its climate, energy and transport goals,' says Tom Dauwe, VITO’s representative in this ETC.  ‘In this way, we generate important insights and knowledge to accelerate the transition to a climate-neutral society.'  Also in this ETC, the priorities have shifted in recent years.  ‘We now focus more on topics such as sustainable energy sources and energy efficiency than before.  And the sustainability of passenger traffic and goods transport is also receiving extra attention today.’ 

Three VITO themes come together in the ETC CA.  Experts of VITO Environmental Modelling, specialised in land use and climate impact, work on the development of specific assessment tools for climate change effects, within the framework of a platform on climate adaptation of the EEA (which was named Climate-Adapt).  Within that platform, experts of VITO Health focus on the health aspects of climate change.  Finally, VITO Remote Sensing contributes to linking information about climate and land use (in the form of satellite images) with the carbon accounting of ecosystems.  And yes, here too, the focus has changed in recent years, or rather, it has broadened.  ‘Different domains, such as climate adaptation, remote sensing and health, now come together in this ETC,' says Filip Lefebre of VITO.  'We work in an interdisciplinary and cross-unit manner, and that is very enriching in itself.' 

For the VITO experts, involvement in the ETC network also pays off in their other activities.  Lefebre: 'At VITO we often work on regional and national projects.  It is then, of course, very useful if you know the overarching European framework in detail and can keep up to date with current developments.'  The EEA is after all the most important European environmental and climate body. Dils: 'The agency does not determine policy, this is however strongly influenced by the knowledge and insights it produces.  Thanks to our strong presence in the ETC network, we can follow everything that is happening in Europe related to the environment and climate from the front row.’ 

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