Charting the Path to a Healthy Planet

Environmental Action and public health must go hand in hand

The European Environmental Bureau’s 2021 conference focused on Europe’s need to give greater urgency and stronger commitments to both climate action and broader environmental action, while making a powerful message on the public health benefits from acting.   

The pandemic revealed many frailties in our society and changed mindsets on policy making- notably on the importance of wellbeing and that climate and environmental action and public health are so intrinsically linked that the world should consider them collectively. The EU must be ambitious by carrying out the European Green Deal and recognize that environmental action and public health are two sides of the same coin.  

For the second year running, the European Environmental Bureau took a precautionary approach and held its Annual Conference virtually. Hundreds of people registered for the event, from every corner of Europe and beyond, and explored the conference’s e-spaces. As part of the conference the EEB also held 10 round tables covering the most pressing environmental problems. The round tables explored EEB’s future vision, it shared inspirations from past practices, delved into system changes and questioned the roles and responsibilities needed for a great and just environmental transformation to take place.  

What participants took from the event was an understanding of European Green Deal policies and the level of ambition is needed to change the state of the environment, ecosystems and to reduce risks to human health and well-being.  

The keynote speakers at this year’s annual conference were Barbara Pompili, Minister for the Ecological Transition of France and Maria P. Neira, Director of the Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health Department of the WHO.  

French Presidential plans 

Barbara Pompili, will be at the forefront of Europe’s environmental decision-making process when France takes over the Council of the European Union presidency in the beginning of 2022. She stressed that it is up to them to challenge greenwashing activities and that the high expectations of both NGOs and CSOs are vital to challenge the succeeding presidency. 

Pompili spoke on the four equal priorities that will be focal to the presidency, the first being climate, and more specifically “a clear map to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030”. Delving more into the priorities she stressed that the EU must, “raise national emissions targets, ensure that climate policies are fair and that they must be addressed together with social ambitions”. 

In July, the EEB already stated its position that the EU’s ‘Fit for 55’ is unfit and unfair to society in a range of issues concerning climate, hydrogen and biomass, circular economy, agriculture, industrial emissions, social justice, energy taxation and air quality. To be Fit for 1.5 °, there is an urgent need to reduce emissions beyond the minus 55, upping commitments in each element of the package and pressing the council and European Parliament on the matter.  

The second priority will focus on the importance of biodiversity.  Pompili stated that, “biodiversity and climate are twin fights”. She stressed that the strategy will focus on “a global framework that is fit for purpose, it shall act against deforestation by cutting financial flows contributing to the act”. She reiterated that the presidency will be pressing the EU to “align the agriculture Farm to Fork strategy with green taxonomy and sustainable investment”.  

The third priority will be to focus on creating a more “circular and sustainable EU model”. Considerations will be taken such as the “life cycle of products from development to waste treatment, the effects of eco-design reducing pollution at the source and efforts of the EU empower consumers to contribute to the eco-design process”. 

The fourth priority priority will be to focus on “reducing the impacts of pollution, especially when concerning chemicals”. She stressed that the European Commission has already taken actions to contribute to endocrine disruptors but, more efforts need to be made. Another important issue for the presidency is to “ban the export of hazardous substances that are not allowed on the internal market”. She also committed to facilitate “discussions between ministers and stakeholders” to meet the Chemicals Strategy objectives. All these actions will be relevant to the Zero Pollution Action plan. The EU owes its citizens a healthy environment.   

A fighting chance for health 

The second keynote speaker, Dr Maria P. Neira, the architect behind the World Health Organisation (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines, stressed that “the Paris Treaty can be the biggest health treaty if we implement it correctly”. 

On the back of the WHO’s new Air Quality Guidelines her argument is very clear, “if health is very strongly connected to the environmental and climate agendas for the next generation, it will have to accelerate with a change of speed”. The writing is clearly on the wall as she stressed the urgency to implement the newly published guidelines. 

Dr. Neira mentioned the benefits of action: “improvement of air quality [in line with the air quality guidelines] would reduce premature deaths by 80%, which could result in millions of lives saved and it would reduce the heavy economic costs that are a burden for our health system”. She also stressed that raising awareness is not enough and called on governments to “not put the responsibility on low-income people” who cannot afford solar panels, organic food or electric cars if they are just making the breadline: “We need strong governments with strong convictions to take measures who can tackle climate change”, then and only then can the fighting chance for health be won.  

Worries handing it over to the next generation 

The first panellist, Tetiana Stadnyk, Secretary General of Youth Environment Europe, the largest environmental youth network in Europe, described the fears of a generation petrified of the hurdles they will need to correct due to the past generation’s decisions. When asked what kind of world she would like to inherit and how do environmental policies need to change for future generations, she expressed her dismay that Europe has not “acted upon things that civil society and activists have been advocated for decades earlier”. She also echoed the EEB’s sentiments regarding emissions, cutting fossil fuels and that the “Fit for 55” is not enough, “what we need is a fit for 1.5 °”.  

She highlighted that “we are still projected for a 2.5 ° rise by 2050, the point of no return”. She also underlined the issue of “youth movements needing resources and funding for youth led projects. Only a fraction is being contributed, as adult organisations are being funded to work with young people instead of directly funding young people”. She stressed the need for “inter-generational equity and an opportunity for young people to have their voices heard”, if we really want the youth to be engaged in climate change. 

We urgently need to build better 

The second panellist, Françoise Bonnet, Secretary General of ACR+ was questioned on what regions need to do to contribute to energy efficiency in the building sector. She urged member states to understand that “regions need to be listened to, not only on a national level” and that “sustainable practices need to be replicated, as the EU must capitalise on what has been done and not reinvent the wheel”.  

Francoise Bonnet, Secretary General ACR+

She highlighted towns promoting composting, the importance of best practices by authorities enacting sustainable behaviour and that “all environmental policies should include economic and social aspects to be tackled at local level”, by including criteria such as “gender equality, differentiating taxes for lower income communities and reduction of electricity for social housing”, to truly make a just change that can be affective for everyone. 

Giving a fair hand to everyone 

In the panel discussion, moderated by Patrizia Heidegger, EEB’s Director of Global Policies and Sustainability, the expert panellists explored whether the EU is doing enough to ensure a green environment.  

Asad Rehman, Executive Director of War on Want rephrased the question to ask, “how do we guarantee that we can deliver a green environment for all citizens?”. He highlighted issues of power, access to justice, capacity, colonialism and the issues of the ‘Global North’ countries advocating for other countries to “do what I say, not what I do”. 

In essence, he summed up that there is a need to shift the perspective from higher income countries to focus “not only to tackle climate but also to tackle inequality”, as “the answer is not in a circular economy but a circular world, we are currently moving from climate denialism to mitigation denialism”. We need creativity and ambition to fix this broken world, he concluded. 

Fighting at EU level not enough 

Francesco Gaeta, Director of International & European Affairs of French Ministry for Ecological Transition, stressed that the “French presidency must do more to put pressure on (their) peers”. In their efforts, the succeeding presidency admitted, “it is not enough to fight climate change and pollution at the EU level” and they can influence other states whilst “working at the COP26 (UN Climate Change Conference), as the EU’s ambitions are clear in its own legislation and clear in its own relations to other states”.  

Great expectations 

At the end of the event, EEB Deputy Secretary General, Patrick ten Brink, presented the results of the EEB Conference poll. It explored whether the European Green Deal has achieved what needed to be done to date.  60% of participants felt that it has the potential to be an ambitious, transformative agenda but is weakened by the lack of ambition on laws and commitments. None of the participants (0%) believed that the EGD goes too far, or that it is already asking for too much from industry and countries and the next three years risks making it even worse. 

The poll also asked “what is stopping decision-makers from making more substantive changes even though the messages on risks of environment, climate and health crisis are crystal clear?” A staggering 71% of participants believed that powerful lobbying interest by some business creating a system lock-in, while only 6% of participants believed that decision-makers are making progress, but it is understandably difficult to change direction. 

By reflecting on the results given by participants, contributing from all over the world, we cannot help but note that changes need to urgently be made, and that governments, civil society, NGOs and multilateral institutions must all play their role in pushing decision makers to make the best out of the Green New Deal’s implementation. 

It is clear to see by the consensus that many believe that barriers such as powerful lobbying interests, lack of ambition, or weak commitments stifle substantive environmental, climate and health changes. Moreover, solutions such as implementing WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines, ensuring that we cut emissions and fossil fuel so that global temperatures  rise by no more than 1.5 ° and that we combat environmental and climate inequality in the process are not only needed, but welcomed. 

People are clearly concerned about the level of ambition placed on environmental, climate and public health policies. Urgent efforts need to be made so that policymakers will not have a disconnect from the wellbeing of our planet and public concerns for the future. Environmental action and public health must go hand and hand in a fair and sustainable way. If we can start pointing decision makers in the right direction, then perhaps, we can chart a path to a healthier planet.  

The conference recording is available on the EEB’s YouTube channel, here.