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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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How food waste is trashing the planet

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18 June is Sustainable Gastronomy Day, an international celebration of local cuisine that is produced in ways that are both environmentally friendly and minimize waste. That last part is becoming increasingly important. A recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found the world is in the grip of an epidemic of food wastage. In 2019, consumers tossed away nearly a billion tonnes of food, or 17 per cent of all the fare they bought.

That is deeply problematic in a world where 690 million people were undernourished in 2019, a number expected to rise sharply with COVID-19. It’s also bad for the planet. Some 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from producing food that is ultimately thrown away.

UNEP recently sat down with two of the authors of the 2021 Food Waste Index Report: Clementine O’Connor, food systems expert with UNEP, and Tom Quested, an analyst with the non-profit organization WRAP. They talked about what the world can do to end the scourge of food waste.

UNEP: What are the main findings of the 2021 Food Waste Index Report?

Tom Quested: A staggering 17 per cent of all available food for human consumption is wasted. If you can picture 23 million fully-loaded 40-tonne trucks – bumper-to-bumper, enough to circle the Earth seven times – then that’s what we’re talking about. The report estimates that, in 2019, 61 per cent of food waste was generated by households, 26 per cent from food service and 13 per cent from retail.

UNEP: Why does food waste matter?

Clementine O’Connor: Even before COVID-19, some 690 million people in the world were undernourished. Three billion people are unable to afford a healthy diet. Uneaten food is a sheer waste of energy and resources that could be put to better use. Reducing food waste at the retail, food service and household levels can provide multi-faceted benefits for people and the planet. Up to now, the opportunities provided by food waste reductions have remained largely untapped and under-exploited.

UNEP: Is this a rich-world problem, or is it more widespread?

O’Connor: An important finding of the study is that household per capita food waste is broadly similar across country income groups (as defined by the World Bank), suggesting that action on food waste is equally relevant in high and middle-income countries. This breaks significantly with the narrative of the previous decade that household food waste is a rich country problem – and underlines the need for middle-income countries to measure baselines and develop national food waste prevention strategies. Providing technical support to help countries get started, UNEP is now launching Regional Food Waste Working Groups in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, West Asia, and Asia-Pacific.

UNEP: What are the key data gaps?

Quested: Most governments around the world have not collected sufficiently robust data to make the case for action. Even fewer have the data to track trends in food waste over time. However, there have been a growing number of national estimates of food waste in recent years. Areas with higher data coverage include Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. In contrast, North Africa, Central Asia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia and the Caribbean have no available estimates.  Data in the retail and food service sectors is also much more limited than for households. As measurement is an important early step to taking action on this important issue, much more measurement is needed.

UNEP: What’s the difference between food waste and food loss?

O’Connor: Food loss occurs along the food supply chain from harvest up to, but not including, the retail level. Food waste occurs at the retail, food service and consumption levels.

UNEP: How does food waste undermine sustainable development?

Quested: Food waste generates all the environmental impacts of food production (intensive use and pollution of land and water resources, exacerbation of biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions) without any of the benefits of feeding people. Food waste, therefore, undermines sustainable development. Sustainable Development Goal 12, Target 12.3, aims at halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses by 2030.

UNEP: Why should I reduce my food waste? How can I get started?

O’Connor: Reducing food waste at home is one of the easiest ways to reduce your personal climate impact. You eat – and make food decisions – at least three times a day. Some easy ways to get started:

Buy only as much as you need: check your fridge before you buy groceries (or add to your online shopping cart as you notice something is missing) to avoid impulse purchases. If you can, buy fresh food regularly and top-up when needed, rather than trying to get accurate quantities in one bulk shop.

Use what you buy: get portion sizes right by using a cup measure for rice, couscous or pasta. Cook creatively with leftovers: many recipes are flexible enough to absorb any wilting vegetables at the bottom of your fridge. Most leftovers will go into a taco, a sandwich, a curry, a frittata or a pasta sauce, and will be transformed with a sauce or relish. Chefs are increasingly keeping food waste prevention in mind when they share new recipes. Make good use of your freezer: food can be frozen until its expiry date or if it still looks tasty, if it doesn’t have a date. When you get back into a restaurant, you’re on the right side of history when you ask for a smaller portion or a doggy bag, so don’t hesitate to do so.

How will you be tracking progress?

O’Connor: Food waste data in relation to SDG 12.3 will be collected using the United Nations Statistics Division/UNEP Questionnaire on Environment Statistics. The questionnaire is sent out every two years to National Statistical Offices and Ministries of Environment, which will nominate a single food waste focal point in the country to coordinate data collection and reporting. The data will be made publicly available in the SDG Global Database and in UNEP’s Food Waste Index Report, which will be published at regular intervals up to 2030. The next questionnaire will be sent to Member States in September 2022, and results will be reported to the SDG Global Database by February 2023.

UN Environment

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A beginner’s guide to sustainable farming

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Industrialized farming has been a reliable way to produce lots of food at a relatively low cost. But it’s not the bargain it was once believed to be. Unsustainable agriculture can pollute water, air and soil; is a source of greenhouse gases, and destroys wildlife. All told that costs economies about $3 trillion every year. And to top it all off, some farming practices have been linked to the emergence of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19.

18 June is Sustainable Gastronomy Day, which celebrates local cuisine that is produced in ways that are both environmentally friendly and minimize waste. To mark the occasion, we take a closer look at how to make agriculture more sustainable and what that would mean for the economy, the environment and human health.

What exactly is sustainable agriculture?

It is farming that meets the needs of existing and future generations, while also ensuring profitability, environmental health and social and economic equity. It favours techniques that emulate nature–to preserve soil fertility, prevent water pollution and protect biodiversity. It is also a way to support the achievement of global objectives, like the Sustainable Development Goals and Zero Hunger.

Does sustainable agriculture really make a difference to the environment?

Yes. It uses up to 56 per cent less energy per unit of crops produced, creates 64 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per hectare and supports greater levels of biodiversity than conventional farming.

Why does sustainably produced food seem more expensive?

It may be more costly because it is more labour-intensive. It is often certified in a way that requires it to be separated from conventional foods during processing and transport. The costs associated with marketing and distribution of relatively small volumes of product are often comparatively high. And, sometimes, the supply of certain sustainably produced foods is limited.

Why are some foods so much more affordable–even when they require processing and packaging?

The heavy use of chemicals, medicines and genetic modification allows some foods to be produced cheaply and in reliably high volumes, so the retail price tag may be lower. But this is deceiving because it does not reflect the costs of environmental damage or the price of healthcare that is required to treat diet-related diseases. Ultra-processed foods are often high in energy and low in nutrients and may contribute to the development of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some forms of cancer. This is particularly concerning amid the COVID-19 pandemic; the disease is especially risky for those with pre-existing health problems.

Do we all have to be vegan?

No. But most of us should eat less animal protein. Livestock production is a major cause of climate change and in most parts of the world, people already consume more animal-sourced food than is healthy. But even small dietary shifts can have a positive impact. The average person consumes 100 grams of meat daily. Reducing that by 10 grams could improve human health while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Is sustainable agriculture possible in developing countries?

Yes. Because sustainably produced food is typically more labour-intensive than conventionally made food, it has the potential to create 30 per cent more jobs. And because it can command higher prices, it can also generate more money for farmers.

Is it possible to make sustainably produced food that is affordable for everyone?

Yes. As demand for certain foods increases, the costs associated with production, processing, distribution and marketing will drop, which should make them less expensive for consumers.  Policymakers can also play a role, facilitating market access and leveling the financial and regulatory playing field.

If it is so important, why hasn’t sustainable farming been adopted as a global standard?

There is a lack of understanding of the way that agriculture, the environment and human health intersect. Policymakers do not typically consider nature as a form of capital, so legislation is not designed to prevent pollution and other kinds of environmental degradation. And consumers may not realize how their dietary choices affect the environment or even their own health. In the absence of either legal obligations or consumer demand, there is little incentive for producers to change their approach.

What are some ways to consume food more sustainably?

Diversify your diet and cook more meals at home. Eat more plant-based foods; enjoy pulses, peas, beans and chickpeas as sources of protein. Eat local, seasonal foods. Purchase sustainably produced foods and learn more about farming practices and labeling. Avoid excessive packaging, which is likely to end up as landfill. Don’t waste food: eliminating food waste could reduce global carbon emissions by 8-10 per cent. Cultivate your own garden, even if it is a small one in your kitchen. Support organizations, policies and projects that promote sustainable food systems. And discuss the importance of healthy and sustainable foods with producers, vendors, policymakers, friends and family.

UN Environment

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Environment

CEOs to G7 and World Leaders: Support “Bold” Net-Zero Commitments

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Over 70 CEOs said they stand ready to work with public sector leaders around the world to reduce emissions. Members of the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders signed an Open Letter championing public-private cooperation ahead of the G7 summit in order to supercharge net-zero commitments, polices and actions.

The signatories are looking for governments to accelerate the transition to net-zero before COP26 in order to accelerate even more action from the private sector. The letter emphasizes public-private collaboration as vital and welcomes transformative policy change.

“It is an important and significant move for this many CEOs to put their names forward for deeper collective collaboration,” said Dominic Waughray, Managing Director, World Economic Forum. “It sends a clear signal to policy-makers that many global business leaders are ready to make the transition to a net-zero future. As we move towards COP26, public-private collaboration will be key to unlocking investment, setting more ambitious targets to reduce emissions, and turning this ambition into action.”

The Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders is the only CEO-led community open to all companies worldwide that want to make clear commitments and work to transition to net-zero. Members believe the private sector has a responsibility to actively engage in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to help lead the global transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. The World Economic Forum hosts the alliance.

The full text of the Open Letter and the list of signatories can be found here on the here on the Forum’s Agenda news site.

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