How do environmental hazards affect vulnerable groups in Europe?

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Article Published 15 Mar 2019 Last modified 22 Mar 2019
4 min read
Targeted action is needed to better protect Europe’s most vulnerable populations, including the poor, the elderly and children, from environmental hazards like air and noise pollution and extreme temperatures. Aleksandra Kazmierczak, a European Environment Agency (EEA) climate change adaptation expert, explains the main findings of a new EEA report that assesses the links between social and demographic inequalities and exposure to air pollution, noise and extreme temperatures.

 Image © Harry Oliver, My City/EEA

What are the key findings of the report?

The EEA report ‘Unequal exposure and unequal impacts: social vulnerability to air pollution, noise and extreme temperatures in Europe’ has four key messages. The first one is that the people who are already disadvantaged, in terms of socio-economic situation or their age, are also disproportionately affected by environmental hazards that we consider in the report. Secondly, there are big regional differences across Europe in terms of where the most disadvantaged regions are and where the pollution concentrates. Some regions are relatively wealthier and less polluted, while others are poorer or more disadvantaged, more polluted and more exposed to extreme temperatures. Another key point made in the report is that we, as the EU, have a good basis in European policy in terms of tackling vulnerabilities but more needs to be done in terms of implementation. This is actually quite urgent, because these inequalities are likely to persist in the future — at least some of them. So the final point the report highlights is that we need to look at local, national and European actions we can take.

What kinds of action are taken to address these inequalities and impacts?

There are very good local assessments of social vulnerability and exposure to environmental hazards. The city of Berlin is a good example, where the entire city has been divided into small parts and for each of those parts, the socio-economic situation of the residents and the environmental problems have been assessed. This combined map of socio-economic and environmental problems allows local authorities to tackle areas where these problems concentrate and where the quality of life of residents is likely to be the lowest.

A serious problem, especially in Eastern and some Southern EU Member States, is the ongoing use of coal as a source of domestic heating. This causes significant air pollution. There are, however, various national programmes of subsidies supporting the switch from coal-based domestic heating to gas and other less polluting sources that target the poorest households.

What information and data did you use for the assessment?

In terms of socio-economic data, we relied heavily on Eurostat data, because it is a European source that provides a consistent database across Europe. Of course, there are some disadvantages in terms of the granularity of the data. It is only reported for large spatial units, the so-called NUTS II and III regions, so it doesn’t go below units of between 150,000 and 800,000 inhabitants. In terms of environmental data, for air pollution and noise we use the data reported to the EEA from countries and assessed by us here. For the climate data, we also used the daily gridded observational dataset produced at the European scale, called E-OBS. It has been analysed in-house to represent climatic variables at the same spatial level as the socio-economic data.

Why does the report focus only on air pollution, extreme temperatures and noise?

We can clearly see the impact of extreme temperatures on people’s lives in terms of both cold and extreme heat observed in recent decades. Despite significant improvements in Europe’s air quality, air pollution continues to be a significant health hazard to Europeans. We regularly see press headlines about air pollution levels being exceeded at various locations across the continent. Also in terms of noise, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about one in five Europeans are exposed to road noise levels that might be affecting their well-being. So we focused on those hazards that have the most impacts on human health. Our focus was also partially determined by data availability and the very good knowledge base we have on these hazards.

What does this report mean for the EEA? How will it be used?

This is a first time we analyse environmental data against socio-economic data at the EEA. It can provide a starting point for further assessments and will hopefully feed into our upcoming ‘State of Europe’s environment 2020’ report. We also have other reports in the pipeline that look at the connections between environment and health.

What is the EU doing further in this area?

The issues we raised in our report were warmly welcomed by the European Commission and other stakeholders. In fact, various EU actors have already recognised the links between socio-economic and environmental problems and are working to ensure they are tackled more effectively together to improve Europeans’ well-being. The link between the environment and social issues is important, as we have seen with recent protests in France and the climate change strikes by students across Europe. The EU is addressing social and economic inequalities  through various programmes like its regional and cohesion policies. These EU efforts complement other measures taken at national and local level. 

Aleksandra Kazmierczak

Aleksandra Kazmierczak

The interview published in the March 2019 issue of the EEA Newsletter 01/2019

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