Hans Bruyninckx is a Belgian political scientist and international relations scholar specialized in international environmental governance and European environmental politics. He is the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA) in Copenhagen.
Several months ago, many European countries introduced restrictive measures to block the Covid-19 pandemic. Following the initial shock caused by this massive and sudden change, we now have the first analyses that allow us to examine the full impact of these measures and to identify solutions to mitigate them.
“Let’s start with the impact on health,” explains Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency. “Long-term exposure to air pollutants — even at low concentration levels — and other contaminants can damage human health and cause chronic diseases, subsequently making people more vulnerable both to existing and new diseases like Covid-19. Our report on ‘Healthy Environment, Healthy Lives’ highlights that one in eight deaths in Europe can be attributed to poor-quality environments. Two key reports were published in September 2020: Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 from the Conference on Biological Diversity and the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2020. They both highlight the alarming rate of decline in biological diversity and call for decisive and urgent action on a global level. The same worrying trends can be observed in Europe. They affect nature’s resilience, productivity and ability to maintain a state of equilibrium. Enhancing nature’s resilience at the global level by protecting, preserving and restoring natural areas (and shifting towards a sustainable food system) will not only probably reduce the risks associated with zoonotic diseases but also ensure our long-term wellbeing.”
The Coronavirus crisis has shed further light on Europe’s need to face environmental issues. This will lead not only to environmental benefits, but also to benefits for the health and well-being of society as a whole.
“The Covid-19 pandemic provides a clear example of how fragile our societies and economies can be in the face of a major shock. The coming months will be critical to the definition of recovery and investment plans. In order to contribute to these discussions, EEA is organizing a series of on-line debates to bring expert knowledge and reflections to a wider audience. Change will happen in one way or another. Faced with uncertainty and a range of challenges, our only practical option is to guarantee that every decision we take, during this critical period, brings us closer to our goals in terms of society and sustainability.”
During the lockdown, the restrictive measures enacted in various countries to limit the diffusion of the new coronavirus also cut carbon dioxide emissions, thereby reducing air pollution and improving the quality of the air we breathe.
"According to our monitoring of the weekly average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and particulates, in the Iberian Peninsula, the lockdown led to a record decrease in emissions. During the week of March 16-22, in Barcelona, average nitrogen levels dropped by 55% over the same period in 2019, while a 40% decrease was recorded over the previous week. Madrid recorded similar drops of 41% and 56%, while Lisbon registered a 51% and 40% reduction. This data precisely reflects the decrease in air pollution, especially due to the reduction of traffic in cities. According to a briefing report published by our agency at the beginning of November, the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent restrictive measures enacted to halt the virus had a positive short-term impact on the European environment. This included a temporary improvement in air quality, less greenhouse gas emissions and a respite from acoustic pollution. Nonetheless, the analysis also emphasizes that there were negative consequences such as an increase in the use of disposable plastic and that we should concentrate on remodeling our non-sustainable production and consumption systems to achieve long-term environmental benefits.”
The European Union and its member states have fielded recovery plans to counter the effects of the health emergency and the deep economic crisis. The question, however, is “How can we recover from this and avoid that other crises – environmental, climactic, economic and public health – occur in the future?
“We can build a resilient society driven by a green economy. The restrictive measures introduced sudden and enormous changes to the European way of life. There were fewer vehicles on our streets and hardly any commercial flights. Many activities were moved on-line, further reducing the need for mobility. The impact on the environment was evident: air quality in cities improved in just a couple of weeks. Naturally, as the restrictions are lifted and economic activities resume, we risk returning to pre-Covid pollution levels. The countries that acted quickly and decisively generally had lower infection and mortality rates, even amongst the more vulnerable categories. Significant lifestyle changes and the use of digital tools provided a short-term solution, but only decisive action triggering fundamental change in our production and consumption systems will make a true difference."
Europe’s long-term strategic policy is described by the European Green Deal, its strategies and action plans. The State of the Union Address by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen not only confirmed that Europe is committed to achieving these objectives, but also further concentrated on climactic issues.
“As I said, the coming months will be fundamental. These objectives must be achieved through a fair transition focusing on inequality and social justice on par with climactic objectives. Governments are allocating public funds to mitigate the worst aspects of the crisis and jumpstart the economy. Will these funds be used to just return to our pre-Covid habits, or will we develop a fair and sustainable world? The European Commission’s recovery plan is based on sustainability. Europe has chosen to become a green, digital and resilient continent. In the European Green Deal, the Commission had already proposed an ambitious transition towards long-term sustainability, focusing on the environment and the climate. These priorities are also clearly reflected in the multi-annual EU €1.1 trillion budget proposal for 2021-27. As part of a recovery plan from this economic crisis, a new, additional, €750 billion financial instrument called ‘Next Generation EU’, has been proposed by the European Commission. Framed by well-defined policy targets, these funds can help Europe transform its economy while achieving climate-neutrality and sustainability and addressing social inequalities. Throughout the transition period, knowledge will play a key role in guaranteeing that these funds are allocated to coherent actions towards this shared vision.”
Analyses conducted by the European Environment Agency reveal that industrial pollution has decreased over the past ten years thanks to a reduction of the emissions released both into air and water. Thus, it is highly probable that EU policy tools will continue to reduce industrial emissions, although pollution will most likely continue to have adverse impacts on human health and the environment.
“EU industrial policy strategy calls for the ongoing development of a strong industry, producing a low level of carbon emissions and based on the circular economy. According to a recent EEA analysis, the use of the best available techniques and the implementation of the most ambitious directives on industrial emission would bring about a substantial reduction in emissions: 91% for sulfur dioxide, 82% for particulates and 79% for nitrogen oxide. Certainly, the transformation of the economy is key to reaching long-term climate objectives. Without a profound transformation of our production and consumption systems, any reduction of emissions triggered by economic crises will most probably be short-term and have an extremely high cost on society. Europe aims to achieve carbon neutrality through a gradual and irreversible reduction of emissions, not through sudden shocks. The solution to the global challenge of sustainability cannot be a massive shut-down of society and enterprise. I believe that a planned and fair social transition, implemented over the long term, is the only way to achieve a resilient society with a strong and sustainable economy."