Environmental change: knowledge is key to mitigating impacts on people and nature

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Article Published 15 Jun 2018 Last modified 26 Sep 2018
5 min read
Environmental policy making is not an easy task. On the one hand, Europeans want to enjoy the benefits a well-functioning economy provides. On the other, there are significant environmental and health costs attached to our lifestyle choices. A systemic understanding of how nature, economy and human health are connected is essential for identifying the best policy options available. The European Environment Agency aims to support policy making by providing exactly this kind of knowledge.

 Image © Miroslav Milev, Environment & Me /EEA

The European Environment Agency monitors key changes to Europe’s environment and presents its findings to support policy-making. Our assessments range from sectoral to systemic analysis, covering past trends as well as projections, in some cases until 2100. The overall conclusions are clear: compared to the 1970s, Europeans are now enjoying cleaner air and water, and a more environment-friendly economy with growing recycling rates and growing share of renewable energy. Despite these significant gains, the overall situation remains unsustainable. Growing resource consumption, climate change and accumulation of pollutants in nature all undermine our planet’s health and our own well-being.

The challenge can be explained in very simple terms: economic activities provide many benefits but also release pollutants into nature, and deplete renewable and non-renewable resources. These pollutants can harm life, including our health. However, a closer look reveals a complexity, which lies at the heart of environmental policy debates in Europe. Each policy option comes with an opportunity cost, benefiting some communities while forcing others to adapt. For example, the transition towards cleaner energy sources can lower pollution and boost the renewable energy sector, but it can also lead to job losses in coal-mining communities.

The polluter pays

The European Union has some of the highest environmental standards in the world, addressing this environmental complexity through an extensive set of laws. These laws include targeted directives addressing air quality, urban waste water treatment and nature protection, as well as cross-cutting policy packages on climate and energy, and circular economy.

At the heart of the European Union’s environmental policies lies ‘the polluter pays principle’. Formally embedded in the EU’s Rome Treaty, the principle is implemented through numerous measures, including fiscal tools such as road tolls for certain vehicles or green taxes to incentivise users towards greener choices.

However, it is not always easy to identify who the polluters are and how much harm each polluter causes. Moreover, how to decide how much they should pay?

In some cases, we have quite detailed information on pollution sources. For example, the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register provides access to pollutants released by more than 30 000 industrial facilities across Europe. In other cases, the pollution comes from diffuse sources like transport and agriculture. In fact, all economic activities that use resources, including energy, impact the environment. And, ultimately, everyone benefits in some way from the goods and services that the economy provides. Hence, everybody pollutes. Individual impacts on the environment, however, vary depending on diets, transport and housing practices and the public systems (e.g. access to renewable energy sources, recycling points, transport systems) where we live.

Who bears the costs?

Pollutants released into nature can change form and composition, move around, accumulate in nature, enter the food chain and impact human health. For example, mercury[1] released into the atmosphere as a gas can be transported by winds and later be deposited on water. Once in water, it can be absorbed by aquatic plants and ingested by animals, and accumulate as it moves up the food chain, ending on our plates. It can take up to hundreds of years for some pollutants to ‘disappear’ or be deposited in places where people can no longer be exposed.

In fact, the extent to which pollution impacts our health depends on exposure — how much, how long and how we are exposed to pollutants. Living in a polluted city with high levels of air pollution and drinking contaminated water on a daily basis can reduce life expectancy significantly. It also depends on our vulnerability, linked to our age and health status. For example, while the health impact of a brief exposure to a chemical pollutant at a very low dose could be negligible on a young healthy adult, it could have serious consequences for the developing foetus.

Despite varying levels of exposure or vulnerability, the costs of environmental degradation, including climate change impacts, are very real. Our assessments show that one single air pollutant, namely fine particulate matter (PM2.5), causes the premature death of an estimated 400 000 Europeans each year. Accumulation of pollutants in nature, including plastics in our seas, over-extraction of resources or physical alterations to habitats cause substantial damage and change, affecting entire ecosystems. Some of these damages are irreversible. Weather- and climate-related extremes in Europe are reported to have caused economic losses over EUR 450 billion over the 1980–2016 period, 40% of these losses are caused by floods, 25% by storms. Just over a third of these damages were covered by insurance.

In this context, we all bear the costs to some extent. Moreover, the highest costs are not necessarily borne by the highest ‘polluters’. Climate change is a global problem, where some of the countries with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions are among the most affected by sea level rise. In the case of air pollution, urban populations are exposed to higher concentrations, caused mainly by transport. Even within the same city, communities living next to major roads are generally more exposed to air and noise pollution than those living near green spaces. Similarly, communities living on floodplains are more prone to flood damage; just as the elderly and children are more vulnerable to heat waves. Conversely, people who have access to a clean environment enjoy greater health benefits. Social inequalities[2] are indeed a factor to bear in mind when assessing various communities’ exposure to a polluted or clean environment.

Future generations will also be bearing the costs of our choices and actions. Even if we halt all emissions today, some of the pollutants released today will persist in nature and average temperatures will continue to rise before stabilising. The impacts will be felt for decades and even centuries.

All these considerations entail difficult policy choices today. To help Europe select the best policy option, the European Environment Agency’s assessments address difficult questions, such as what is happening, why it is happening, who is affected, what the situation will look like in the future and how we can improve it. With this knowledge, policy makers are better placed to choose the most sustainable solution and provide additional support to those affected the most.

Hans Bruyninckx

Hans Bruyninckx

EEA Executive Director

The editorial published in the EEA Newsletter, Issue 2018/2, 15 June 2018

[1] The European Environment Agency will publish a report on mercury in the environment later in 2018.

[2] The European Environment Agency is working on an assessment addressing social inequalities and environmental impact, which is planned to be published later in 2018.

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