COVID-19 is highlighting an urgent need to link environment and health policies. It has become increasingly clear that climate change, air pollution, noise, toxic chemicals and other environmental threats are directly impacting on human health.
“We need a healthy environment if we want to lead healthy lives,” (03:06) argued Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency.
Bruyninckx presented a new EEA report ‘Healthy environment, healthy lives: how the environment influences health and wellbeing in Europe’ at the Friends of Europe online event.
EEA report highlights
05:03 Up to one-in-eight deaths in Europe linked to environmental factors.
06:04 Poor air quality means 400,000 Europeans die prematurely every year.
07:06 Noise pollution brings heart disease, premature death and child cognitive impairment.
08:13 Heat waves, extreme cold, floods, increasing disease vectors show ‘very clear’ links between climate change and health.
09:07 More study needed on health threats from chemicals and antimicrobial resistance.
11:21 Environmental and social factors such as air pollution and access to water are worsening the impact of COVID-19.
European Green Deal welcomed but not enough
Speakers backed the European Green Deal and the 21 July agreement among EU leaders on a €1.8tn package to reboot the economy. However, they said EU targets should be more ambitious and priorities better focused to tackle the climate emergency and other environmental challenges.
“EU policymakers need to walk the talk on greening the economy, on protecting our health and on moving us to zero pollution,” (16:50) said Anne Stauffer, Director of Strategy and Campaigns of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). “The EU Green Deal cannot be underestimated, but we need to make these commitments that are in the Green Deal … and turn them into tangible actions and actual decisions.”
12:48 Implementation of the Green Deal will create a healthier environment and cut healthcare costs (Bruyninckx).
17:39 The European Parliament should correct the “big disappointment” caused by proposed cuts in health programmes, research and investment, and to help regions move away from fossil fuels (Stauffer).
19:56 Although the European Commission is expected to raise its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target from 40% to 55% this month, that’s still inadequate and should be taken to 65% (Stauffer).
38:20 EU member states should halt policies incompatible with climate goals, like support for airlines, coal industries and conventionally powered cars (Katarina Luhr, Stockholm’s Vice Mayor for Climate and the Environment).
Green and healthy cities
The pandemic has accentuated the role of cities in promoting cleaner environments and healthier lives. That’s recognised by national and European authorities who are devolving responsibilities. The way cities and citizens have adapted to COVID-19, for example through remote working, can bring long-term benefits.
“There are many indications that this new way of working will carry over into the post-corona future,” (39:13) explained Luhr. “That does open up many opportunities: less commutes to work could mean less congestion on our roads and less CO2 emissions, and with less people flocking to the city centres, we could see a revitalization of neglected districts on the periphery.”
35:52 Cities need better national and EU policies to help them improve citizens’ lives (Luhr).
10:15 Investment in green and blue city spaces can be a low-cost way of improving health, the environment and social cohesion (Bruyninckx).
27:25 COVID-19 has forced cities to take quick action, for example on opening cycle and walking paths, that build urban resilience (Francesca Racioppi, Head of the European Centre for Environment and Health of the World Health Organisation).
39:49 Cities should expand the range of recreational and cultural attractions to encourage citizens to staycation (Luhr)
Post pandemic priorities
The fast pace of decision-making during the pandemic can be maintained to ensure that the post-COVID normality better protects public health and the environment.
“COVID has been a big game changer, it has helped us to focus on what is really of importance,” (29:28) said Racioppi. “The link to the environment, to the integrity of our world’s ecological systems, is not just about protecting a few endangered species, it is about protecting the survival of human beings, it is about protecting ourselves and the generations to come.”
Priorities for the next 12 months?
58:00 Stricter air-quality standards and more ambitious 2030 European climate targets (Stauffer).
58:22 Stronger regulations for cars and trucks; better planning for nature-based city solutions (Luhr).
59:30 Every child in every school in Europe should have access to handwashing facilities (Racioppi).
1:00:21 Greater alignment of health and environment policy and more European investment in both (Bruyninckx).
Nature is central to our health. In the EU, however, almost one in seven deaths is attributable to environmental pollution. Socially deprived communities are more exposed to air pollution, noise and extreme temperatures, and COVID-19 adds an extra burden. Protecting and restoring our environment – in particular in cities – can combat pollution, improve health and foster social cohesion.
This online debate explores solutions to tackle the link between environmental pollution and inequality. A high-profile group of policymakers and key experts in the field will share their views and address questions from the online audience.
This event is organised in partnership with the European Environment Agency to mark the publication of the ‘Healthy environment, healthy lives: how the environment influences health and wellbeing in Europe’ report.
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PHOTO CREDIT: Ieva Bruneniece, My City/EEA
Be it clean air, water, quality food or a restorative walk in the woods – nature is central to our health. In the EU, almost one in seven deaths is attributable to environmental pollution. Socially deprived communities are more exposed to air pollution, noise and extreme temperatures, and so face a higher risk of environmental diseases. COVID-19 adds an extra burden for these communities as underlying conditions increase the likelihood of infection and hinder recovery.
Protecting and restoring our environment – in particular in cities – can mitigate environmental pollution, improve our health and foster social cohesion. Socially deprived communities stand to benefit the most from the benefits of access to green and blue spaces. The European Green Deal offers an opportunity to tackle environmental inequalities in the EU by directly addressing the uneven distribution of environmental risks and benefits across the continent. Integrated policies can foster synergies across the environment, health and society and deliver a triple win.
- The burden of environmental disease is greater in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe. What role can EU instruments like the European Green Deal and the Cohesion Fund play here?
- There is some evidence that air pollution increases vulnerability to COVID-19. Can this provide a new opening to tackle environmental health inequalities?
- Cities can be a playground for experimentation when it comes to green and blue spaces. How can city planners involve vulnerable people and ensure they benefit as well?
Executive Director of the European Environment Agency
Vice Mayor for Climate and the Environment of the City of Stockholm
Head of the European Centre for Environment and Health of the World Health Organisation (WHO)
Director for Strategy and Campaigns of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL)
Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe
As Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, Hans Bruyninckx is responsible for providing policymakers with reliable, independent information on a wide array of environmental subjects, from urban air quality to green infrastructure. Before joining the European Environment Agency, Bruyninckx was head of the Research Institute for Work and Society at the Catholic University of Leuven, where he also served as head of the Political Science Department. Over the past 20 years, he has led research on environmental politics, climate change and sustainable development on a multitude of scales, working with local governments, member states, EU institutions and international organisations.
Katarina Luhr strives to increase the quality of life for every Stockholmer. As Vice Mayor, she works on climate, biodiversity, air quality and water issues to make Stockholm a greener and more sustainable city. Luhr is a member of the political board of the Covenant of Mayors, where she represents EUROCITIES, the network of major European cities. Before joining the City Council as a representative for the Green Party, Luhr worked on harmful chemicals, pesticides and medicines at the Poison Information Centre and completed a doctorate in neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute.
Francesca Racioppi leads the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health. She has extensive experience in different WHO operations, including leading the Rome Office of the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health and developing and leading the Programme on Violence and Injury Prevention. Racioppi has more than 30 years of international experience in environment and health policies and science. In 2018, she received an honorary doctorate from the Swedish School of Sport and Health Science in Stockholm for her leading engagement in environmental health and active transport.
Anne Stauffer leads the work on climate change, energy and air quality of the Health and Environment Alliance, a not-for-profit organisation addressing how the environment affects human health in the EU and beyond. She has more than ten years of experience in the field and has led HEAL’s advocacy on key policy files, including the EU Environmental Action Programme, the EU Clean Air Standards, and the National Emissions Ceiling Directive. In 2013, Stauffer received the Clean Air in London Award for her contribution to improving air quality in London.
Tamsin Rose is Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe. Having studied international relations, she has 25 years of experience working across the European continent from Ireland to Mongolia. A natural communicator, Tamsin has been a radio reporter, worked on press for the EU Delegation in Moscow and is currently a member of the external speaker team for the European Commission Directorate General for Communication, describing how the EU works and key policies to visitor groups from around the world. Since 2002 she has specialised in public health and public participation issues, serving as Secretary General of the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), and providing strategic advice for health groups on how to engage successfully with the EU.
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