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The Pollution Challenge

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 Image © Associated Press

'The gardens and streets were covered in about 15 cm of red sludge. People were trying to wash it off their homes and their belongings with soap and water. Others were simply packing up. I tried to wash the sludge off my rubber boots that night but couldn't. The red just wouldn't come off,' says Gábor Figeczky, acting head of the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Hungary.

On 4 October 2010 one of the worst toxic spill accidents in Europe of recent years occurred near the city of Ajka in Veszprem County, Hungary, approximately 160 km south-west of Budapest. As a consequence of a failure of the tailing dam of a reservoir for an aluminium production plant alkaline sludge flooded a wide area including three villages. Long-term consequences of the event are not yet known (EEA, 2010).

This is just one example of the challenges facing us in terms of pollution from industrial activity. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which began in April 2010, is another well documented pollution episode in the same year. These are dramatic examples, however, most of us come in contact with some form of pollution in our daily lives.

Street flowerShaping the earth and its mechanisms

Human impacts on the environment have risen steadily. Previously our impacts were primarily felt locally. However, in the last few decades we have seen impacts spread across regions — think of acid rain. And now, climate change, for example, has global impacts.

The term 'anthropocene', based on the Greek word 'anthropos' meaning 'human being', has been used to describe our era. This is because human resource use and the resulting complex mix of pollutants has become a dominant driving force, shaping the Earth and its regulating mechanisms.

Like us, our environment is vulnerable to pollution. A lot of the time it can absorb the unwanted outputs of our activities — pollution and waste — rendering them harmless over time. Indeed, this ability to absorb and transform pollutants is one of the essential services that healthy ecosystems perform for us. But ecosystems have a limited capacity in this regard. If we overburden them then we risk damaging them and the species living there — ourselves included.

A closer look at three pollutants

If we concentrate on just three pollutant types it will give us some idea of the serious impacts we are having on our planet: particulates, nitrogen and ground-level ozone. They merit particular attention because of their complex and potentially far-reaching effects on ecosystem functioning, climate regulation and human health. And they share most of the same drivers, for instance industrialisation, globalisation and rising consumption.

Emissions of many air pollutants have fallen substantially over recent decades in Europe and air policy is one of the great success stories of the EU's environmental efforts. In particular, policy has dramatically cut emissions of sulphur, the main component of 'acid rain'.

However, we continue to burden the environment with an increasingly complex pollutant load, the potential effects of which on public health and the environment are poorly understood. An estimated 70 000 to 100 000 chemical substances are already in commerce and this number is rapidly expanding. Almost 5 000 of these substances are produced in high volumes, over one million tonnes a year.

• Particulate matter is a term used to describe a variety of tiny particles from sources such as vehicle exhausts and domestic stoves, affects the lungs. Long-term and peak exposure can lead to a variety of health effects, ranging from minor irritation of respiratory system to premature death.

• Nitrogen pollution affects groundwater quality and leads to eutrophication of freshwater and marine ecosystems. After application of manure and fertilisers to agricultural land, excess nutrients may be emitted to the air or leak as nitrate into ground water or run off to surface water. This freshwater pollution load is ultimately discharged to coastal waters, where it can have serious consequences.

• Though it acts as a protective layer high above the earth, ozone (O3) can be harmful. 'Ground level ozone' refers to the ozone in the air near the earth's surface. It is not emitted directly into the air but forms when other substances mix. Ground level ozone exposure can have severe health implications for people and can reduce crop yields. Productivity and species composition of natural habitats may change, putting biodiversity at risk.

Innovation: the energy example

'Like finding a needle in a haystack' is how Ocean Nutrition Canada describes the company's discovery of a microorganism hidden in algae that is capable of producing triacylglycerol oil — a base for generating biofuel — at a rate 60 times greater than other types of algae previously being used.

By converting carbon dioxide and sunlight into lipids (fatty acids) and oils, certain types of algae can generate up to 20 times more fuel per acre than traditional crops.

This project is just one example of the research being undertaken into new fuel options around the world. Single-celled microalgae contain oils similar to the vegetable oils that have already been successfully used as biofuels. And this algal oil may well be the greenest solution available to reduce the carbon footprint we leave every time we drive a car, buy fruit trucked in from far away, or travel by air.

Unlike fossil fuels, which release carbon, microalgae consume carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere as they grow. As a result, algal fuel would not add to net carbon emissions.

And unlike other biofuel sources such as corn, microalgae do not require the diversion of farmland from food production. In fact, according to the National Research Council of Canada — a leader in this area of research, an ideal scenario would be to cultivate microalgae in municipal wastewater, which is rich in fertilisers like ammonia and phosphates. Carbon dioxide could be diverted from industrial flue stacks to provide the carbon source. No other source of biofuel could be grown in this way.

Ocean Nutrition Canada is in fact a food supplement company and was looking for ingredients when it made its discovery. This reality illustrates perfectly both the potential and the conflicts that we face in the future. Should we use crops/resources to feed ourselves or to create fuel? Can we innovate our way forward?

Keeping an Eye on Earth

In the context of this increasingly complex pollution challenge information is critical for scientific and policy design purposes. However, the EEA is also committed to providing access to relevant, timely and understandable environmental information to the general public. Simply put, we want to engage people in dialogue and empower them.

For most users, of course, raw data may be more or less meaningless. The key is to make it accessible in formats that are accessible and relevant. Working together with Microsoft, EEA is putting these ideas into effect. New information and communication technologies mean that — in a single location — we can now gather, organise and access data of different types from potentially huge numbers of sources.

The new Eye on Earth platform provides information on local bathing water and air quality, based on near real-time data from monitoring stations and computer modelling. It translates rather ‘dry’, complex scientific data into a format that is relevant and understandable for more than 500 million EU citizens in 25 languages.

WaterWatch, for example, gives users easy access to information on water quality ratings drawn from 21 000 monitoring points at bathing sites in 27 European countries. Using Cloud computing technology, visitors to the site can zoom into a selected area of the online map of Europe or, alternatively, type a beach name into the search bar.

Eye on Earth also gives the public the chance to give their opinion on beach, water and air quality, supplementing and validating (or perhaps refuting) official information. This two way communication is a key step towards engaging with each other and empowering different communities.

Over coming years, we hope to enrich the service, with new types of information, derived both from scientific monitoring and other sources, including local or indigenous perspectives.

Europe is innovating

Access to natural resources is crucial for all parts of the world. This is especially true in the context of global energy demand, where increased scarcity of fossil fuels may stimulate a shift to energy sources available domestically.

A shift to new energy sources could affect Europe's environment. Potential impacts include increased land take for biofuels, disruption of ecosystems through new hydropower capacity, noise and visual pollution from wind turbines, and pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from oil shale exploitation. Expanding nuclear energy capacity will trigger public debate about waste storage and safety risks.

Europe must continue to innovate and find market niches that reduce the overall need for minerals, metals and energy, while developing new technologies and solutions.

Geographic coverage

European Environment Agency (EEA)
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