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Tackling pollution and climate change in Europe will improve health and well-being

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Air and noise pollution, the impacts of climate change such as heatwaves, and exposure to dangerous chemicals cause ill health in Europe. Poor quality environments contribute to 13 % (one in every eight) of deaths according to a major assessment on health and environment released today by the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Improving the health and well-being of European citizens is more important than ever, with attention currently focused on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic provides a stark example of the complex links between the environment, our social systems, and our health.

A significant proportion of the burden of disease in Europe continues to be attributed to environmental pollution resulting from human activity, according to the EEA report ‘Healthy environment, healthy lives: how the environment influences health and well-being in Europe.’ The report, which draws extensively on World Health Organization data on the causes of death and disease, highlights how the quality of Europe’s environment plays a key role in determining our health and well-being. It shows how social deprivation, unhealthy behaviours and shifting demographics in Europe influence environmental health, with the most vulnerable hardest hit.

‘There is a clear link between the state of the environment and the health of our population. Everyone must understand that by taking care of our planet we are not only saving ecosystems, but also lives, especially the ones who are the most vulnerable. The European Union is devoted to this approach and with the new Biodiversity Strategy, the Circular Economy Action Plan and other forthcoming initiatives we are on the path to build a more resilient and healthier Europe for European citizens and beyond,’ said Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries.

‘COVID-19 has been yet another wake-up call, making us acutely aware of the relationship between our ecosystems and our health and the need to face the facts – the way we live, consume and produce is detrimental to the climate and impacts negatively on our health. From our Farm to Fork Strategy for sustainable and healthy food to Europe’s future Beating Cancer Plan, we have made a strong commitment to protect the health of our citizens and our planet’ said Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety.

‘While we see improvements in the environment in Europe and a clear focus in the Green Deal on a sustainable future, the report indicates that strong action is needed to protect the most vulnerable in our society, as poverty often goes together with living in poor environmental conditions and poor health. Addressing these connections has to be part of an integrated approach towards a more inclusive and sustainable Europe,’ said Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director. 

Key findings

  • Air pollution remains Europe’s top environmental threat to health, with more than 400 000 premature deaths driven by air pollution every year in the EU. Noise pollution comes second, contributing to 12 000 premature deaths, followed by the impacts of climate change, notably heatwaves.
  • The burden of pollution and climate change varies across Europe, with clear differences between countries in the east and west of Europe. The highest fraction of national deaths (27 %) is attributable to the environment in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the lowest in Iceland and Norway at 9 %.
  • Socially deprived communities typically struggle under a triple burden of poverty, poor quality environments and ill health. Poorer communities are often exposed to higher levels of pollution and noise and to high temperatures, while pre-existing health conditions increase vulnerability to environmental health hazards. Targeted measures are needed to improve environmental conditions for the most vulnerable in Europe.
  • People are exposed to multiple risks at any time, including air, water and noise pollution, and chemicals, which combine and in some cases act in unison to impact on health. European cities are particularly vulnerable to these multiple threats, while also having less access to green and blue spaces.
  • Ongoing research is investigating the links between the current COVID-19 pandemic and environmental dimensions. The virus behind COVID-19 is thought to have “jumped species” from animals to humans, an unforeseen outcome of the pressure that increasing consumption places on our natural systems. Regarding the impact of COVID-19 on communities, early evidence suggests that air pollution and poverty may be linked to higher death rates. Further research is still needed to clarify these interactions, according to an initial assessment in the report.

Better integration of policies, more green, blue spaces key part of solution

The report stresses that an integrated approach to environment and health policies is needed to tackle environmental risks, protect the most vulnerable and fully realise the benefits that nature offers in support of health and well-being.

A healthy nature is a key mechanism in the delivery of public health, reducing disease and fostering good health and well-being. Green solutions offer a triple win for health, society and the environment. Quality green and blue spaces in urban areas support health and well-being, offering venues for physical activity, relaxation and social integration, with major benefits for poor communities. Green and blue spaces cool cities during heatwaves, alleviate flood waters, reduce noise pollution and support urban biodiversity. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many commentators have noted a renewed appreciation of the benefits to mental health and well-being delivered by access to green and blue space, especially in urban areas.

Within the EU, the European Green Deal represents a critical direction-setting change in the European policy agenda and sets out a sustainable and inclusive strategy to improve people’s health and quality of life, care for nature, and leave no one behind.

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No More Business as Usual: Green Deal Needed in Europe’s Recovery

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Chief executive officers (CEOs) and senior representatives of around 30 European companies expressed today their support for the European Green Deal as a growth strategy for Europe with a joint statement. The COVID-19 recovery is the opportunity to reset Europe’s economy with a new growth model on the path to net-zero emissions, based on circularity, renewable energy and low-carbon industries.

The CEOs said they firmly believe the way out of the current crisis cannot be more of the same. They commit to reducing their carbon footprint and to embrace new production and work models to play their part in decarbonizing Europe’s economy and achieving climate-neutrality by 2050.

“The COVID-19 pandemic requires a massive and coordinated economic stimulus to both mitigate the economic repercussions of the pandemic and, above all, to accelerate the necessary transition to a low carbon economy. We have to take more and faster action with more emphasis on sustainability and circularity. The European Green Deal presents an opportunity to do just this. It requires a strong partnership between business, politics and society. Together we can make Europe the greenest, most innovative and inclusive region in the world, where the Green Deal should provide jobs and economic prosperity at the same time. The action plan announced today by the WEF CEO Action Group for the European Green Deal is an important step with concrete actions to support this agenda.” commented the CEO Action Group Co-Chairs, Axa’s CEO Thomas Buberl and Feike Sybesma, Royal DSM’s Honorary Chairman.

“The EU is putting in place the largest and greenest stimulus plan ever. It is the right time for businesses to show how they can effectively contribute to achieving the EU’s climate targets. As a next step, this group is working on lighthouse projects, which demonstrate how to step up action in areas such as sustainable transport and mobility, food and agriculture and renewable energy markets,” Børge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum, added.

The EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in her State of the European Union speech today, is expected to reassert the Green Deal as a central element of Europe’s growth strategy and the region’s recovery efforts. Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s Executive Vice-President in charge of the European Green Deal, welcomed the CEO statement: “The Green Deal is a once-in-a-generation effort to transform our economy. It is crucial to have European businesses on board, as we’ll need every company to contribute to climate neutrality and help deliver on the Green Deal. I very much support the efforts of the CEO Action Group to implement the European climate agenda.”

CEOs and senior representatives supporting the statement are:

  • Michael Altendorf, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Adtelligence GmbH, Germany
  • Marco Alverà, Chief Executive Officer, Snam S.p.A., Italy
  • Claudia Azevedo, Chief Executive Officer, SONAE SGPS SA, Portugal
  • Kai Beckmann, Chief Executive Officer, Performance Materials, Member of the Executive Board, Merck, Germany
  • Dick Benschop, President and Chief Executive Officer, Royal Schiphol Group, Netherlands
  • Jesper Brodin, Chief Executive Officer, Ingka Group (IKEA), Netherlands
  • Thomas Buberl, Chief Executive Officer, AXA SA, France*
  • Levent Cakiroglu, Chief Executive Officer, Koç Holding AS, Turkey
  • Bertrand Camus, Chief Executive Officer, SUEZ, France
  • Liam Condon, President, Bayer Crop Science, Bayer AG, Germany
  • Claudio Descalzi, Chief Executive Officer, Eni SpA, Italy
  • Hanneke Faber, President, Foods and Refreshment Division, Unilever, Netherlands
  • Camilla Hagen Sørli, Member of the Board, Canica AS, Norway
  • André Hoffmann, Vice-Chairman, F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd, Switzerland
  • John Holland-Kaye, Chief Executive Officer, Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited, United Kingdom
  • Svein Tore Holsether, President and Chief Executive Officer, Yara International ASA, Norway
  • Paul Hudson, Chief Executive Officer, Sanofi, France
  • Nuno Matos, Chief Executive Europe, HSBC Holdings Plc, United Kingdom
  • Gerald Podobnik, CFO Corporate Bank, Deutsche Bank AG, Germany
  • Jonas Prising, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, ManpowerGroup, USA
  • Nicolas Namias, Chief Executive Officer, Natixis, France
  • Yves Robert-Charrue, Member of the Executive Board and Head of Switzerland, Europe, Middle East & Africa, Bank Julius Baer & Co. Ltd, Switzerland
  • Michael Schernthaner, Chief Executive Officer, Schur Flexibles Group, Austria
  • Veronica Scotti, Chairperson, Public Sector Solutions, Swiss Re Management Ltd, Switzerland
  • Marco Settembri, Executive Vice-President and Chief Executive Officer, Europe, Middle East and North Africa, Nestlé, Switzerland
  • Feike Sybesma, Honorary Chairman, Royal DSM NV, Netherlands*
  • Jean-Pascal Tricoire, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Schneider Electric, France
  • Loic Tassel, President, Europe, Procter & Gamble, Switzerland
  • Bernhardt von Spreckelsen, Fashion Photographer & Developing Hyper Luxury, Brand Owner, Bernhardt von Spreckelsen, United Kingdom

The CEO Action Group for the European Green Deal, launched in autumn 2019 in cooperation with the World Economic Forum and the European Commission, seeks to mobilize business to step up commitments towards achieving the Green Deal and the EU greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2030 in order to drive a clean and inclusive economic recovery.

*Co-chairs of the CEO Action Group for the European Green Deal

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Indigenous People in World Affairs

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In late May, the world’s biggest iron ore miner Rio Tinto legally destroyed two historically significant sacred caves in a Western Australian state, against the wishes of the traditional Aboriginal owners, which sat atop a high-grade ore body it planned to mine.

The destruction distressed the local Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP) and fuelled a wider public outcry that led to an inquiry into how the blast was legally sanctioned.

The destruction of the sites, which showed evidence of 46,000 years of continual habitation, occurred just as the Black Lives Matter protests trained a global spotlight on racial injustice.

The inquiry is looking at how a culturally significant site came to be destroyed, the processes that failed to protect it, the impacts on traditional owners, and the legislative changes required to prevent such incidents from recurring.

Rio is conducting its own independent board review into the incident, due to be completed in October, and has pledged to make the findings public.

Aboriginal cultural heritage is a fundamental part of Aboriginal community life and cultural identity. It has global significance and forms an important component of the heritage of all Australians.

But the destruction of this culturally significant Aboriginal site is not an isolated incident. Rio Tinto was acting within the law.

In 2013, Rio Tinto was given ministerial consent to damage the Juukan Gorge caves. One year later, an archaeological dig unearthed incredible artefacts, such as a 4,000-year-old plait of human hair, and evidence that the site was much older than originally thought.

But state laws let Rio Tinto charge ahead nevertheless. This failure to put timely and adequate regulatory safeguards in place reveals a disregard and disrespect for sacred Aboriginal sites.

Another example is the world’s leading steel and mining company ArcelorMittal.

ArcelorMittal needs to move beyond good intentions on environmental and social improvements and turn words into deeds. Despite its rhetoric on social responsibility, the company continues to destroy the environment, risk people’s lives and displace local communities, according to a new report launched in 2019 by the Global Action on ArcelorMittal coalition to coincide with the company’s annual shareholder meeting in Luxembourg.

Comprising case studies from seven countries ranging from the Czech Republic to India and South Africa, the report also reveals new problems emerging around ArcelorMittal’s iron ore-mining operations in Nimba County, Liberia, including unclear resettlement plans for local people, a lack of permanent employment from the mine, threats to the Mount Nimba Nature Reserve, and a questionable donation of 100 pickup trucks.

The action of another manufacturer also raises controversy. Anglo American is a global mining company with a portfolio that spans diamonds, platinum, copper, iron ore and more. The emissions from a new Anglo American underground mine project in Chile could be catastrophic for the nation, ecologists reveal. The multinational company has so far avoided scrutiny of the project by hollowing out regional environmental organisations and sharing erroneous information with the scientific community. Anglo American, a London Stock Exchange listed company, has tunnelled under a Chilean glacier, with a plan to excavate copper and approximately 166 million tonnes of raw material from beneath the Yerba Loca nature sanctuary. This is equivalent to the volume of 127 Costanera Centre towers—South America’s tallest building, which sits at 300 metres and is located in Santiago. It then plans to backfill the entire mine with approximately 114.9 million tonnes of concrete.

The carbon footprint of the 3.4 million tonnes of cement required will be equivalent to 3.2 percent of the South American nation’s 2016 carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, or the collective carbon dioxide emissions of 20 of the world’s least-polluting countries. The number rises to 9.7 percent if Anglo American’s plan to extend the life of the mine from 2036 to 2065 is agreed.

We have more good examples.

The third largest steelmaker in the world is Nippon Steel. Each year beginning from 2015, the company has conducted a forest environment preservation activity—Greenship Action. In order to protect the valuable nature in the Tokyo metro area, with the cooperation of NPOs and members of the local forestry industry, Nippon Steel have been performing thinning work and creating access roads in the mountain forests of Ome City in Tokyo. Although cutting down trees may seem like environmental destruction, if the forest is left on its own, the trees will grow increasingly dense, resulting in a dark and unhealthy forest due to the lack of sunlight penetration. By identifying necessary and unnecessary trees, and removing the unnecessary ones, a suitable amount of sunlight can enter, restoring an environment that allows a diverse range of woodland life to coexist. This activity is a valuable opportunity for the participants to personally experience and understand the importance of contributing to society.

The Russian company Nornickel is a global leader in the production of the mineral nickel. Murmansk Oblast and the Taymyr Peninsula have been the homeland for indigenous peoples of the Arctic for generations and are the principal sites for the company’s activities. The Sámi, Nentsy, Nganasan, Entsy, Dolgan, and Evenki communities have preserved the traditional life, culture, and economy of Northern peoples, including reindeer herding, hunting, fishing, and gathering. Healthy and productive ecosystems, both on land and water, are the basis of indigenous people’s culture and identity, supported by the company.

In particular, the company allocates funds for the construction and repair of housing for indigenous peoples, the improvement of small and remote settlements in Taimyr, and the provision of food for the children of reindeer herders. Norilsk Nickel also renders assistance to the indigenous population with air transportation of goods to remote villages, supplies of building materials and fuel.

This article takes a critical look at how large-scale mining works in the emerging global economy. The strategies adopted by governments around the world in recent years to encourage foreign investment in exploration and production of minerals raise questions about how multinational mining companies are approaching environmental and related challenges. And the role of ecology in the policy of companies should only grow.

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10 years to restore our planet. 10 actions that count

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Against a backdrop of environmental crisis, the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is a chance to revive the natural world that supports us all.  A decade may sound like a long time. But scientists say that these next ten years will count most in the fight to avert climate change and the loss of millions of species. Here are ten actions in the strategy of the UN Decade that can build a #GenerationRestoration. 

  1. Empower a global movement  

The UN Decade aims to stop and reverse the destruction and degradation of billions of hectares of ecosystems. It is a daunting task, made more complicated by the diversity of ecosystems and the threats they are facing: from lush forests threatened by wildfires to agricultural soils so eroded that they may only carry a few more years of harvests. No single entity can steer the course in this endeavour. The UN Decade thus connects and empowers the actions of the many. Groups and individuals can get informed about restoration opportunities in their area, joining initiatives already underway, or start their own.  

  1. Invest in restoration

Restoration takes resources. Organizations driving activities on the ground are often underfunded and face financial insecurity. While the benefits of restoration far outweigh the costs, it can only happen with long-term financing. Governments, international lenders, development agencies, the private sector and individuals will have to ramp up their support. 

  1. Set the right incentives  

In the long-term, healthier ecosystems can produce bigger harvests, more secure incomes and a healthier environment. But caring for nature can also mean foregoing some of the financial gains of less sustainable practices. There are ways to change this by incentivizing restoration activities and reducing subsidies that finance harmful practices, in the agriculture and fishing industries, for example.

  1. Celebrate leadership  

Over the past years, we have witnessed incredible momentum around restoration. Campaigns to plant trillions of trees have captured the imagination of many communities. Under the Bonn Challenge, more than 60 countries have committed to bringing 350 million hectares of forest landscapes back to life. Indigenous peoples have acted as defenders of their ecosystems for generations. The UN Decade will celebrate leadership and encourage others to step up.  

  1. Shift behaviours  

Deforestation, the depletion of fish stocks and the degradation of agricultural soils are all caused by global consumption patterns. The UN Decade will work with all partners to identify and encourage restoration-friendly consumption. This can range from changes in diets to promoting restoration-based products.  

  1. Invest in research  

Restoration is complex. Practices that work in one ecosystem may have adverse impacts in another. As the climate changes, new uncertainties arise. Returning to a former state may not be desirable as hotter temperatures or shifting rainfall call for more resilient plants and crops. Scientific understanding of how to restore and adapt ecosystems is still developing. Considerable investments are needed to identify the best practices to restore our planet – one plot at a time.  

  1. Build capacity  

Thousands of conservation and restoration initiatives are already underway. The UN Decade will be fuelled by their vision, expertise and dedication. However, practitioners often face barriers that keep them from taking their projects to scale. Other critical sectors, such as finance, require more data and insights to make informed decisions. The UN Decade’s strategy seeks to build the capacity of marginalized groups that stand to lose most from the destruction of ecosystems – such as indigenous peoples, women and youth to take an active role in restoration. 

  1. Celebrate a culture of restoration 

The power to revive our environment does not lie only with governments, experts and practitioners alone. Healing the planet is a cultural challenge. The UN Decade’s strategy therefore calls on artists, storytellers, producers, musicians and connectors to join the #GenerationRestoration. 

  1. Build up the next generation 

Youth and future generations are most impacted by the current rapid destruction of ecosystems – they also stand to benefit the most from a restoration economy. The UN Decade’s strategy links the wellbeing of youth and the goals of restoration. Education for restoration will turn today’s children into ecosystem ambassadors and provide skills for sustainable jobs.

  1. Listen and learn 

We would like to hear from you. Take a quick survey to help us learn more about you and how you want to be involved.  

UN Environment

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