Lessons from health impacts should drive EU policies

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the environment and human health go hand in hand. Now is the moment, urges Patrick ten Brink, for decision-makers to embrace environmental policies as health policies – for the better of people and the planet.

The European Green Deal is two years old and almost halfway to being fully rolled out.  Its commitments to carbon neutrality and zero pollution, and the green oath of “do no harm” are encouraging, but just what exactly is being committed to is less reassuring. There is still time, if only just, to set that right.

Writing our own history

Decision-makers have a unique chance to leave a positive legacy. The opportunities during these next three years won’t come again. Decision-makers at all levels – from cities, to regions, to nations, the EU and globally – can easily see the irrefutable arguments for progress: the science, the impacts we see in the news or in the hospitals, the calls from youth to inherit a planet where they have a fair future. Science and civil society have been ringing the alarm bells for years and offering ways forward. Everyone can see that there is a new norm coming that we need to embrace and a new history to be written.  We all hold the pen. So, what’s on the table and what’s next?

World Health, European Health

On the 22 September, the World Health Organisation released its much-awaited Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs). There are based on scientific evidence and identify the levels of air quality safe for public health worldwide. 80% of the premature deaths in the world could be avoided if the guidelines were respected. In Europe, two-thirds of premature deaths linked to particulate matter could have been avoided – i.e. 300,000 cases, if levels of air pollution were reduced.

The guidelines focus on a range of pollutants – particulate matter (PM₂.₅ and PM₁₀), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), sulphur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO) – and create a timely impetus for strengthening EU environmental legislation.

Evidence has been growing over the last decade on the impacts of air pollution on health and associated diseases – cancer, bronchitis, asthma, early-onset dementia, reduced birth weights and cranial capacity, and organ and cell damage. Knowing what we know now, allowing this to continue is not an option. Today is the time to tackle these issues with strong EU policies.

Modernising policies

In Europe, the Ambient Air Quality Directives and wider Zero Pollution Actin Plan (ZPAP), legislation linked to emissions from transport, from heating in buildings, the industrial emissions, and emissions from burning wood (where permitted). These are environmental policies, but given their potential to save lives and support health and wellbeing, their revision should equally be embraced and supported by Ministers of Health.

Obtaining health benefits from reducing air pollution is perhaps the most obvious area of opportunity for environmental legislation to drive much-needed change. But there are many others that can and must be tackled.

The climate crisis, with the once-in-a-century events now becoming an unacceptable yearly norm for fires and flooding, alongside record-breaking temperature levels, is both a health and environmental crisis. This means the Fit-for-55 package to be negotiated between the Commission, Parliament and Member States are not just climate laws but also health laws.

Exposure to chemicals – from products, in the workplace, and in our homes – has time and time again been shown to incur an unacceptable list of health impacts: from cancer to endocrine disruption, to reprotoxic impacts. The Chemicals Sustainability Strategy (CCS) launched as part of the EGD was a step in the right direction, but legislation is too weak, governance too poor, and implementation and enforcement often woefully absent. The reality on the ground is still far too short on what is needed in Europe – and it is the health of Europeans that pays the price. We don’t need to accept that harmful chemicals are necessary in the products we use and should be able to trust. 

Noise too is a form of pollution and has many, often under-explored health impacts. Evidence is growing on its negative effects on human health, on children’s ability to learn at school, and animal’s wellbeing in the oceans – a far noisier place than most of us imagine, with boats, sonar, and mining. The ZPAP says it will consider the evidence to determine whether the noise directive should be reviewed – the impacts on human health and disruption to oceans suggest so.

These are only some of the policies that absolutely need our attention to protect the health of people and the environment.

Learning from Covid

The COVID-19 crisis has put the health and wellbeing agenda at the top of all government’s priorities. It should stay there. The health and wellbeing of our people and planet should be the compass for policy, not never-ending GDP growth that does not make people happier, and undermines the planet, to the very unequal short-term benefit of the few. 

If we have a psychological need for growth, then focus on growth of knowledge, of wellbeing and health, culture and societal resilience, ecological resilience. The Covid crisis taught us that the destruction of nature, the encroachment of mankind on wild nature increases the risks of animal illnesses jumping to people. If we want to avoid a repetition of this, we should give back land to wilderness, let nature recover and be restored, and invest in our life-support systems.

Embracing a new norm

We have an opportunity to not blindly return to yesterday’s business as usual, but recognise the risks of our current system, the system lock-ins, the need to move to a new sustainable paradigm. We shouldn’t accept pollution as a necessary evil for development. Many solutions exist that will not compromise development, but rather support it. It is only that a different metric of prosperity is needed.  

We should recognise that GDP growth which held the crown of policy primacy has outlived its utility. Wellbeing and sustainability are a better compass. During the crisis many countries have been putting wellbeing at the heart of their policies. There should be no turning back.

Opportunities for transformative progress

In the next three years of this Commission and Parliament, the rest of the European Green Deal will be rolled out.  During this period, six Member States will hold the rudder on EU policy making as they become presidencies of the council, with France set to take over from the incumbent Slovenians in the new year. Then, the baton will pass one by one to the Czech Republic, Sweden, Spain, Belgium and Hungary. The May 2024 European elections will be a vote on whether enough as been done or whether we need a new generation of Members of European Parliament.

Each institution, each country will have an influence on what policies are agreed, which laws are revised or added to the statute books. The Fit-for-55 is key – not only through climate effects, but the specific sustainability provisions under the RED II directive will also make a huge difference on air quality and biodiversity loss. The ZPAP is a major opportunity and should be seen not as a collection of existing policies that need to be tweaked, but as a fundamental shift towards zero pollution ambition – with zero tolerance for pollution, zero delay as lives are at stake, and zero money for pollution. The time when money could be spent on fossil fuels with a good conscience is in the past – it is time to write our own history.

EEB’s Annual Conference – Charting the Path to a Healthy Planet – will take place, virtually, on Monday the 11 October. We will explore how to move from where we are today to a future we need, leaving no one behind. Join us and add your vision, experiences of what works, insights onto needs for both incremental progress and system change, and vision as to who can do what to make the transformative change happen, and what each of us can do to make a difference.  See https://conference.eeb.org/ and register to join us.