Cross-cutting story 5: Co-benefits of addressing climate change and pollution

Page Last modified 08 Dec 2022
10 min read
This cross-cutting story examines the measures being taken to address climate change and pollution. It also explores the potential synergies and trade-offs between measures designed to address these two key societal issues.

Climate change and pollution in its various forms — including air, water, soil and noise pollution —represent two of the most important drivers of change affecting Europe’s environment (EEA, 2020a). They are interconnected and mutually reinforcing phenomena that have an impact on and are impacted by all major production-consumption systems, including food, energy and mobility. Firstly, climate change and pollution often have joint sources and exert combined pressures on the European environment. Secondly, climate change can exacerbate the impacts of pollution on human health and the environment. Lastly, the policies and measures adopted to mitigate climate change and reduce pollution are inevitably characterised by synergies and trade-offs. The zero pollution action plan acknowledges these multiple linkages and frames its zero pollution ambition as a necessary complement to the EU’s 2050 climate-neutrality goal.


Joint sources of climate change and pollution

The EEA’s (2022a) greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory data for the EU show that in 2020, the sectors of human activity with the largest shares of GHG emissions were energy supply (26%), domestic transport (22%), industry (22%), residential and commercial buildings (13%), and agriculture (12%). Each of these sectors also contributes to various forms of pollution, as shown by the EEA’s air pollutant emissions data and the European Industrial Emissions Portal. For example, energy supply accounted for 41% of sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions in the EU in 2020, among other air pollutants. In the same year, transport remained responsible for around 43% of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, while the building sector accounted for up to 58% of all fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions. For their part, manufacturing and extractive processes generated 47% of all volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in 2020. Furthermore, these processes are the main sources of heavy metal and persistent organic pollutant (POP) emissions to air and water, which are toxic to humans and ecosystems. Finally, agricultural production generated up to 94% of total ammonia (NH3) emissions and 54% of methane (CH4) emissions in 2020. The sector is also the primary contributor to nutrient and pesticide pollution as discussed in the relevant zero pollution sections on freshwater, health and soils.

Unsustainable production and consumption patterns in Europe drive both climate change and environmental pollution. The large amounts of resources used and waste generated — and the relatively low volumes of materials recycled — indicate that Europe is still far from becoming a circular and resource-efficient economy (EEA, 2019a). This means that large amounts of GHGs and harmful pollutants are still emitted in extracting raw materials and producing goods that are wasted or not recycled. This results in avoidable environmental pressures both in the EU and globally (OECD, 2019).


Mutually reinforcing impacts on human health and the environment

The most evident impacts of pollution and climate change on human health in the EU are connected to citizens’ exposure to heat and air pollution (Figure 1). Short-lived climate forcers that are also air pollutants, such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone (O3), constitute the largest environmental health risk in Europe (EEA, 2022d). In 2020, 238,000 premature deaths in the EU were attributed to exposure to PM2.5 as detailed in the zero pollution assessment on air and health. The frequency and intensity of extreme heat are also increasing in Europe; it is estimated that heatwaves were responsible for up to 129,000 deaths in EEA member countries between 1980 and 2020 (EEA, 2022b; EEA, 2022c). In addition, joint exposure to particulate matter intensifies the impact of heat on mortality (Peters and Schneider, 2021, Cissé et al., 2022).

Figure 1. Overview of the interacting drivers of climate change and pollution and the associated impacts (observed and projected) on human health and ecosystems in Europe.

Source: EEA.

Click here to view the figure enlarged

Beyond air pollution, there is concern that climate change may increase exposure to harmful chemicals as a result of increased flooding and the mobilisation of contaminated sediments (Cissé et al., 2022). Climate change is also expected to increase mercury bioaccumulation in the marine food chain due to rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification and permafrost thawing in Arctic ecosystems (among other factors (FAO, 2020)). In addition, it is estimated that the negative impacts of climate change on crops, soil quality and animal health may lead to the increased use of agrochemicals — which could affect human health and ecosystems (EFSA, 2020).

In terms of ecosystem effects, EU Member States’ reporting shows that pollution from agriculture, mixed-source pollution and pollution from urban sources represent around 7% of all reported pressures to European species and habitats (EEA, 2020b). While it is not yet reported as a particularly substantial pressure by Member States, climate change is also seen as a rising threat; the most frequently reported climate-related pressures come from droughts, decreases in precipitation and temperature changes. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sixth assessment report, climate change is already impacting Europe. The effects include local species loss, shifts in species’ ranges, changes in ecological processes, increased wildfire risks, and negative impacts on soil moisture, respiration and carbon sequestration (Bednar-Friedl et al., 2022). Importantly, these observed impacts (as well as any projected future risks) interact with environmental pollution; together, this compromises ecosystems’ resilience to climate change. Toxic cyanobacterial blooms, whose occurrence is influenced by excess nutrient pollution linked to mineral and organic fertilisers on agricultural land, as explained in the zero pollution cross-cutting story on nutrients, are also projected to increase with climate change (Paerl et al., 2016; Wells et al., 2020).


Synergies and trade-offs in mitigating climate change and reducing pollution 

The interconnections that exist between climate change and pollution affect, directly or indirectly, most of the targets of the zero pollution action plan. This means that the EU and its Member States must consider the co-benefits and trade-offs that may exist between the policies and measures taken to reduce pollution and those taken to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Many win-win solutions are possible. Recent EEA analyses have noted the significant potential for synergies between national air pollution and climate mitigation actions. The deployment of renewable energy, for example, led to an estimated 12% reduction (EEA, 2020c) in GHG emissions in 2020 (compared with 2005 levels) and has reduced other environmental pressures associated with electricity generation in the EU. When renewable energy is based on non-combustion processes (as is the case for solar and wind power), implications for air quality are positive. Reducing GHG emissions from transport, including by shifting to cleaner technologies such as electric vehicles and promoting use of public transport, is expected to also yield further benefits for air quality and hence for human health.

In the construction sector, a growing body of research acknowledges the health benefits of climate mitigation actions such as energy efficiency improvements and retrofitting green roofs and greenways. These benefits include improved indoor air quality, reduced local air pollution and associated impacts on ecosystems, and improved resource management (Cabeza et al., 2022). Climate adaptation actions, such as better natural cooling of buildings, can also help improve indoor air quality and lower GHG and air pollutant emissions linked to energy production and use (EEA, forthcoming). Nature-based solutions in European farming systems and in cities can simultaneously contribute to nature restoration, climate mitigation and adaptation, and reduce nutrient and pesticide pollution (EEA, 2021). Moreover, a broader shift towards healthier diets in Europe could yield significant co-benefits in terms of nutrient pollution and GHG emissions (Willett et al., 2019).

However, there are potential trade-offs to consider. For example, the EEA (2019b) has estimated that, while increased biomass burning has helped reduce fossil fuel consumption, it may have led to higher emissions of PM and VOC from the renewable energy sector (especially from heating) in almost all EU countries (compared with 2005 levels). Biofuels, which will also contribute to the EU’s push towards climate neutrality, must be carefully managed to avoid negative direct and indirect impacts related to land use changes (ETC, 2021). Assessing the complex interdependencies between different natural resources and production-consumption systems through resource nexus approaches can help policymakers mitigate similar trade-offs. Ultimately, this could help the EU shift towards more sustainable patterns of production and consumption.


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EEA, forthcoming, Sustainably cooling buildings in the EU: exploring the links between climate change mitigation, adaptation and social impacts.

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Cover image source: © Matjaz Krivic, Well with Nature /EEA


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