European Union (EU) environmental policy has brought many positive changes and largely contributed to the protection of the environment and public health across Europe. The EU and national governments have been setting and updating their objectives to “protect, conserve and enhance the EU’s natural capital, turn the EU into a resource-efficient, green, and competitive low-carbon economy, and safeguard EU citizens from environment-related pressures and risks to health and wellbeing”. It could be said that EU citizens benefit from some of the highest environmental standards in the world. Yet, the questions whether environmental justice exists in Europe and whether there is even distribution of environmental health hazards across Europe, still exist. The “Unequal exposure and unequal impacts: social vulnerability to air pollution, noise and extreme temperatures in Europe ” report, issued by the European Environment Agency (EEA) warns that there are significant regional differences in social vulnerability and exposure to environmental health hazards across Europe and that the health of Europe’s most vulnerable citizens remains disproportionately affected by these hazards, despite the significantly improved Europe’s environmental quality.

The key findings of the EEA report

The report assesses inequalities in the exposure to and health impacts of selected environmental health hazards (air pollution, noise and extreme temperatures) on European society and discusses how these are addressed in policy and practice. The key findings prove that the uneven distribution of the impacts of air pollution, noise and extreme temperatures on the health of Europeans closely reflects the socio‑demographic differences within the society and that there are prominent regional differences in social vulnerability and exposure to environmental health hazards across Europe:

  • The elderly, children and those in poor health tend to be more adversely affected by such environmental health hazards than the general population (i.e. they are more vulnerable)
  • Groups of lower socio-economic status (the unemployed, those on low incomes or with lower levels of education) also tend to be more negatively affected by environmental health hazards, as a result of their both greater exposure and higher vulnerability
  • In many European countries, the disproportionate exposure of lower socio-economic groups to air pollution, noise and high temperatures occurs in urban areas
  • Regions with lower average socio-economic status and higher proportions of elderly people in southern and south-eastern Europe experience greater exposure to ground-level ozone and high air temperatures
  • Regions that are both relatively poorer and more polluted in terms of particulate matter (PM) are located mainly in eastern and south-eastern Europe (including Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece). The link between socio-economic status and exposure to PM is also present at a finer-scale, local level
  • Wealthier sub-national regions tend to have higher average levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), mostly because of the concentration of traffic and industrial activities in these locations. However, it is still the poorer communities that tend to be exposed to higher local levels of NO2, as shown by studies at finer spatial scales

In addition, the report emphasises that these inequalities are not fully addressed by current policy and practice and even though the links between social vulnerability and environmental health hazards are acknowledged in The 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP), the air quality and noise directives and the EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, these policies do not explicitly require specific actions from the Member States to reduce inequalities in exposure and vulnerability. Moreover, the report states that due to the ongoing and projected changes in European society (for instance, the rapid ageing in many western and southern countries or the continuing economical differences between the East and the West), the inequalities in social vulnerability with regard to environmental health hazards will likely persist or even increase.

What should be done?

The environmental quality in Europe has been steadily improving over recent decades. Yet, these improvements have not been distributed equally and environmental health hazards impacts are more present in the countries and regions where income and education are lower and unemployment rates higher than European averages. Thus, the report suggests some steps and actions that need to be undertaken so the spatial and societal inequalities in vulnerability and exposure to the environmental health hazards will be reduced:

  • Enhancing the coherence between EU policies in terms of human health, climate change and air pollution agendas in the EU policy framework may help to address the inequalities in environmental impacts
  • At the local level, multiple policy areas from welfare policies to urban design can help to reduce the vulnerability and exposure of the population
  • Improving spatial coverage and higher resolution of socio-economic data, establishing methodological approaches and addressing the gaps in knowledge on the distributional impacts of noise and the combined effects of multiple environmental health hazards would enhance future assessments of the links between societal inequalities and environmental quality

United in Diversity

EU has designed policies and strategies, so Sustainability, prosperity and better living conditions are achieved in every Member State and in the countries that are on their way to join the European Union. Even though EU environmental policy has recorded impressive results during the recent decades, the societal inequalities still exist. In varietate concord (United in diversity) is the motto of the European Union, implying “how Europeans have come together, in the form of the EU, to work for peace and prosperity, while at the same time being enriched by the continent’s many different cultures, traditions and languages”. The reduction of inequalities in exposure to environmental health hazards falls under Sustainability and prosperity as well. There is no such thing as “prosperity for some citizens”, there is only “prosperity for all of them”.

Photo by Christian Wagner on Unsplash

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