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Nature is the foundation of our health and well-being. It gives us clean air, water, food, materials and space for recreation. Spending time in nature is good for our mental health. And if we do not take care of the planet, its climate and ecosystems, we undermine how our societies function, worsen our lives and, perhaps most directly, harm our own well-being.
The EEA Signals 2023 gives an overview of the most immediate links between the environment, climate and health. Air quality in Europe has improved considerably over the past decades, resulting in better health and fewer premature deaths. Most people in Europe can enjoy high quality drinking water straight from the tap, and the vast majority of our bathing sites are of the highest standards, giving us excellent relaxation opportunities. To protect people and the environment, Europe has also put in place the world’s most advanced chemical laws and is pursuing the most ambitious climate commitments.
Health is both a deeply private matter and a subject of great public importance. When asked about the most important thing in their lives, people around the world name their own health and the health of their loved ones. In politics, healthcare is a topic of fierce debate and consumes a large share of public budgets.
We can be happy that current generations of Europeans live both longer and healthier than ever before. Some of this positive development can be linked to advances in environmental policy. Reducing air pollution, improving drinking water quality and sanitation, and curbing the use of some of the most harmful substances all have a positive effect on our health. We are learning to better protect citizens from heat waves and other hazards and, with ambitious emission cuts, we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
Yet despite these achievements, we cannot be really satisfied. More than one out of 10 premature deaths in the EU are related to pollution. In addition, many citizens are not able to live full lives as they struggle to cope with pollution-related illnesses such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Poor air quality is still a major health hazard in Europe. Noise pollution is a growing problem that seems difficult to tackle. We continue to produce and consume large amounts of chemicals, some of which harm the environment or our health. And the consequences of climate change are becoming more and more severe, causing water scarcity, heat waves, large forest fires and floods. These hazards disproportionately hit the most vulnerable people in our societies, including children, the elderly and people with little money or ill health.
The European Green Deal and its zero pollution agenda set ambitious goals to safeguard nature, the climate and people’s health. Reducing and preventing pollution improves quality of life and prevents illness. Some would argue that this is too costly. But it is done to protect ecosystems that our societies depend on and to protect our own health. Both in the case of ecosystem health and people’s health, it is far cheaper and much more effective to prevent damage than to repair it. It is simply a good investment for the future – and something that the polluters should pay for.
To support these efforts, there is growing momentum around the so-called ‘one health’ approach. Traditionally, we have focused on individual hazards, such as specific types of pollution in air, water or soil. The ‘one health’ approach recognises that our own health is connected to the health of domestic and wild animals, plants and the wider environment, and that our actions to improve health must consider all these dimensions. Indeed, actions to safeguard nature and the climate are actions to safeguard our own health.
The EEA integrates knowledge about the environment, climate and society. Together with our expert network, the Eionet, we connect the dots between data and information on nature, the climate and the societal systems of energy, food, mobility and the built environment. One example of such work is the ‘European environment and health atlas’, which allows users to check the quality of their local environment and explore individual and combined health risks.
Such analysis makes the link between environment and well-being very clear. Improving the state of our environment and mitigating climate change delivers both direct and indirect benefits for everyone in Europe. Solutions that make the most of nature, such as parks in urban areas, often offer triple benefits by mitigating pollution, enhancing biodiversity, and improving our health and well-being, including mental health.
We see more and more assessments highlighting the ‘polycrisis’ of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, and the need to take urgent action. To put it simply, everything that we need to survive and thrive depends on nature. In continuing to harm nature, we are damaging the very systems that underpin our own health and well-being — and compromising future generations.
This editorial is part of EEA Signals 2023 — Environment and health in Europe.