During EU Green Week, the EEB called out widespread pollution and its link to climate change, agriculture and biodiversity loss. This discussion came before the mid-term review of the European Green Deal (EGD) and ahead of the publication of the much-anticipated legislation on pesticides.
The 2022 European Green Week focused on the transformative power of the EGD against the odds of the Coronavirus and Ukraine crises, industry pressure and several other factors that slow down its implementation. The EEB policy experts flagged pollution as one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss that pushes one million species to extinction and crosses the planetary boundaries.
The EEB addressed the need to tackle pollution in the context of its connection to other environmental crises such as climate change, biodiversity and chemicals. It also exposed the detrimental impact of frequent legislative delays on the EGD’s ambition to achieve a toxic-free environment and the zero pollution ambition. In addition, the EEB stressed the importance of listening to early scientific warnings about pollution which could help prevent unnecessary health and environmental damage.
The upcoming legislation on the use of pesticide, linked to agriculture and the use of industrial chemicals, was given special attention with two presentations, a video and an exhibition by Maria Sibylla Merian, a scientist and artist of the 17th century, famous for observing insects (Merian is also the artist behind the image at the top of this article).
One Planet, one Health
In December 2019 Ursula von der Leyen compared the Green Deal to a “man on the moon” moment, placing the well-being and health of current and future generations at the top of the political agenda. In the EGD framework, the EU began pursuing flagships initiatives for achieving a toxic-free environment such as the Zero Pollution Action Plan (ZPAP), the Chemical Strategy for sustainability (CSS) and the Farm to Fork Strategy.
In its Green Week session called “One Planet, one Health”, the EEB presented the high stakes around EGD policies. It made the case for an integrated approach to tackling pollution and brought policy perspectives from the areas of chemicals and agriculture with a special emphasis on the use of pesticides, nature and industry.
The event discussed the EU siding with lobbies with vested interests which sideline and weaken some of its initiatives and vision. For example, current crises like the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine are used as arguments to delay key policies such as EU’s Farm to Fork and the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. The EEB believes these policies are a once-in-a-decade opportunity and must not be weakened by the respective industries or other preventable factors.
Following the Green Week, Patrick Ten Brink, EEB’s Director of EU Policy, paraphrased his opening speech by saying:
“The Commission must recognise the European Green Deal as a blueprint for the recovery from different crises, which could, in fact, give the Deal and the zero-pollution commitments an extra push.”
Preventing Pollution at the Source and the Precautionary Principle
In theory, the EGD and its ZPAP have recalibrated the hierarchy of action on pollution. The precautionary principle which requires that, if there is a strong suspicion that a certain substance or activity may have environmentally harmful consequences, it is better to control that activity now rather than to wait for the proof of scientific evidence. Together with the prevention of pollution at source they are fundamental principles for all EU policy.
In practice, Europe has a long way to go before these pollution prevention principles are implemented to the extent that they become the transformational drivers to air and water quality, industrial emissions, and the control of chemicals (REACH regulation) they were intended to be.
Agriculture, another significant area linked to pollution, is responsible for 94% of ammonia emissions and 54% of methane emissions in the EU alone.
The Green Week event highlighted the use of chemical pesticides, as a topic of concern linked to chemicals and agriculture. Intensive farming and the use of agricultural pesticides and chemicals is leading to an over polluted environment. European waters and agricultural soils are heavily polluted and insect populations are decreasing at an alarming rate, with negative consequences for food production in the EU. Exposure to pesticides is also linked to health problems. The first victims of pesticides are farm workers, but exposure affects each of us because pesticides contaminate everything around us, including the air we breathe and the food we eat.
After three months of delay, the legislation on the sustainable use of pesticides (SUP) will be finally published later today. The new legislation is expected to address some of the key environmental issues associated with pesticides use. It introduces a 50% legally binding chemicals use reduction target at the EU level and aims at putting an end to the poor implementation of current legislation. The EEB has been calling for an ambitious and coherent piece of legislation and a ban on the exports of pesticides that are no longer allowed to be used in the EU.
Eva Corral of the EEB says:
“We welcome the proposal and call on the European Parliament and the Council to give us a clear sign that they care about their citizens and the environment, and that they work towards a toxic-free environment. They must resist attempts from vested interests to avoid meaningful and prompt action on pesticides.”
In these troubled times, EU citizens need to trust the EU institutions that they are able to transform Europe into a modern and resource-efficient economy, capable of withstanding the challenges of climate change, health and environmental degradation. As for the decision-makers in Member States, they need to see the EGD promises turned into ambitious laws aimed at tackling the devastating pollution from all sides in a comprehensive and coherent manner.