Communities with lower levels of income and education are often more impacted by air, water and noise pollution, as well as climate change. So are the elderly, children and other vulnerable groups. In many cases, vulnerable groups are exposed to multiple environment- and climate-related hazards.

Europeans enjoy on average a good quality of life, compared with other parts of the world. Still, many communities in Europe are impacted in different ways by environmental and socio-economic inequalities at national, regional, neighbourhood and individual levels, our research shows.

The elderly, children and the poor are more likely to have their health affected or worsened by environmental hazards. The oldest and the youngest people are more vulnerable to poor air quality, pollution, noise, and extreme temperatures — both cold and heat. Children are also particularly negatively affected by noise.

People with lower levels of education, lower incomes or manual jobs tend to have less access to high quality food and worse overall health, including higher stress levels, which makes them more sensitive to environmental health hazards. These social groups also tend to be more exposed to environmental hazards, as they live, work and go to school in places with worse environmental quality and more pollution. Cheaper housing is frequently more difficult to keep cool in summer and warm in winter.

There are pronounced regional differences in social vulnerability and exposure to environmental health hazards across Europe:

  • Regions with lower average socio-economic status and higher proportions of elderly people in southern and south-eastern Europe experience greater exposure to ground-level ozone and high air temperatures;
  • Regions that are both relatively poorer and more polluted in terms of particulate matter (PM) are located mainly in eastern and south-eastern Europe.

Cities can play a crucial role in alleviating some of these issues within broader urban sustainability efforts.

Eastern European regions (including Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) and regions in southern Europe (including Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece), where incomes and education are lower than European averages, are more exposed to air pollutants including particulate matter (PM) and ground-level ozone (O3), according to our estimates.

Wealthier regions tend to have on average higher levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), mostly because of the high concentration of road traffic and economic activities. However, within these regions themselves, it is still the poorer communities that tend to be exposed to higher local levels of NO2, being located closer to the sources of pollution.

Environmental inequalities are reflected even in the access to green areas, which offer great benefits for children and the elderly:

  • Cities in the north and west of Europe have more total green space within their area than cities in southern and eastern Europe.
  • Within cities, the degree of greening varies across neighbourhoods, with less and lower quality green space typically found in communities of lower socio-economic status.

The European Green Deal strives to transform the EU into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy, with “no person and no place left behind”.

As part of the European Green Deal, the Just Transition Mechanism is a key tool to ensure that the transition towards a climate-neutral economy happens in a fair way, leaving no one behind. It provides targeted support to help mobilise around EUR 55 billion over the period 2021-2027 in the most affected regions, to alleviate the socio-economic impact of the transition.

The new Social Climate Fund will also provide dedicated financial support to Member States to help vulnerable citizens and micro-enterprises with investments in energy efficiency measures such as home insulation, heat pumps, solar panels, and electric mobility. It will also be able to provide direct income support covering up to 37.5% of the new national Social Climate Plans. It will start operating in 2026, before the entry into force of the new Emissions Trading System for transport and building fuels, and will be financed by EUR 65 billion from the EU budget, plus 25% co-financing by Member States.

Other EU policies, including those on air and noise pollution, aim to reduce the overall health impacts of environmental hazards. Where relevant, EEA assessments highlight these inequalities.

What does a just transition to sustainability look like ?

Europe’s ambitions are to be achieved through sustainability transitions that require radical changes to how we live and work, especially how we produce and consume.

The large-scale systemic change required will create winners and losers according to the EEA briefing ‘Delivering justice in sustainability transitions’. To help deal with the negative impacts we must develop a deeper understanding of what ‘justice’ is and how it can be applied to avoid new or worse inequalities for people and nature.

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How to protect the vulnerable

Many regional and city authorities are proactive in reducing the impact of environmental hazards on the most vulnerable members of society:

  • Improved spatial planning and road traffic management, such as the introduction of low-emission zones in city centers reduce exposure to air pollution and noise in areas where socially vulnerable groups live.
  • A ban on certain domestic heating fuels, like coal, also leads to improved air quality in low-income zones, possibly with subsidies for low-income households.
  • Examples of actions aimed at protecting children from aircraft and road noise include the provision of noise barriers and protective structures in outdoor play areas.
  • Many national and local authorities have put action plans in place to improve emergency response to help the elderly and other vulnerable people during heatwaves or cold spells. This is often supplemented by community or voluntary sector initiatives.

Who benefits from green spaces in cities?

Parks, urban forests, tree-lined streets and riverbanks support urban well-being by providing space for rest, relaxation and exercise, and by keeping temperatures down. However, not everyone across Europe enjoys equal access to green space in cities.

The health benefits of urban green space are well recognised for children, whose physical and mental development is enhanced by living, playing and learning in green environments. The elderly also benefit significantly from visiting green and blue spaces, through improved physical health and social well-being.

Our briefing reviews the evidence of socio-economic and demographic inequalities in access to the health benefits derived from urban green and blue spaces across Europe.

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Just resilience in urban adaptation

Climate change affects all European residents, but not everyone is impacted to the same extent. Those most impacted are typically those who are already disadvantaged due to factors such as age, health, or socio-economic status.

At the urban scale, some injustices are particularly present because of the interaction between the physical characteristics of the built environment and the often-large proportion of socially vulnerable residents. If they are not addressed, these existing injustices may be reinforced or new ones may develop.

The implementation of climate adaptation measures may not benefit all members of society evenly. For instance, marginalized communities often have les access to green spaces and face higher financial barriers in obtaining flood insurance or implementing flood-proofing strategies.

A 'just resilience' approach takes into consideration injustices in both the process and outcomes of the development of adaptation actions. It requires meaningful and inclusive participation, as well as regular monitoring, reporting and evaluation of the outcomes of the adaptation process.

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