Towards Europe 2030: resilient nature, sustainable economy and healthy lives

Source: European Environmental Agency

The COVID-19 pandemic provides a clear example of how fragile our societies and economies can be in the face of a major shock. Environmental degradation and climate change are expected to make such shocks more frequent and more severe. Faced with uncertainty and multiple challenges, our only viable option is to ensure that each decision we take in this critical period brings us closer to our social and sustainability goals.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a gamechanger. The world has seen wars, economic and financial crises, wildfires, food shortages and migration waves, and local and seasonal epidemics. But this pandemic is unlike anything current generations have experienced before. It spread around the globe, affected directly or indirectly millions, if not billions of people, locked societies down, closed borders and brought entire sectors to a halt — and did all this over just a matter of months.

It has now been six months since many countries in Europe implemented lockdown measures to combat COVID-19. After the first shock of this massive and abrupt change, societies are still trying to understand the virus and the full scale of its impacts, and to find solutions to mitigate them.

Unequal health impacts

The way the coronavirus affects people varies. Vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or those with pre-existing health conditions and diseases, appear to be more severely at risk.

The same vulnerable people are typically also more affected by environmental health hazards, poor air quality in particular. 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 to existing and new diseases like COVID-19.

Our recent report on ‘Healthy environment, healthy lives’  highlights that one in eight deaths in Europe can be attributed to poor-quality environments. It also draws attention to inequalities in terms of health impacts both across Europe and within countries. Reducing environmental pollution and ensuring access to a clean environment can reduce the burden of disease and help people lead healthier lives.

Preserving natural areas

COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease. It is a new virus that has jumped from animal species to humans. Such jumps are most likely to occur when wild animals come into close contact with human populations, mostly resulting from expansion of human activities in natural areas, interactions between human and animal in intensive meat production facilities or through the capture of wild species for human consumption.

Again, COVID-19 is just an example of the links between the wider environmental degradation and its concrete impacts on our health and well-being. In the past few days, two key reports were published — Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 by the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Living Planet Report 2020 by WWF. 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 are observed in Europe, affecting nature’s resilience, productivity and ability to provide for us. We will be publishing in coming weeks our comprehensive assessment of the state of nature in Europe, based on detailed data reported by EU Member States.

Enhancing nature’s resilience at the global level by protecting, preserving and restoring natural areas and shifting towards a sustainable food system is not only likely to reduce the risks associated with zoonotic diseases but also ensure our long-term wellbeing.

Factoring in climate uncertainty

The way and the rate we use natural resources — including fossil fuels, forests and land — lie also at the heart of climate change. From the latest wildfires in the US to melting glaciers in the Alps, the impacts are already devastating. Unless we succeed to drastically reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases and adapt to a changing climate, we will be faced with many more severe shocks, impacting our society and economy. And, as in the case of COVID-19 and air pollution, some of us will be more affected than others.

COVID-19 triggered a public health crisis as well as a deep economic crisis. In response, the European Union and Member States have been putting in place economic recovery plans.

The real question is: How can we recover from this current crisis in a way to prevent other crises — environment, climate, economy and public health — from happening in the future?

Building a resilient, just society and a green economy

Lockdown measures introduced massive and sudden changes to the way of life in Europe. There were fewer vehicles on the road and hardly any commercial flights. Many activities moved online, further reducing the need for mobility. The impacts on the environment were clear. Air quality improved in cities within weeks. As the restrictions are lifted and economic activity picks up pace, we start to see a gradual return towards pre-COVID levels.

The COVID example has shown that countries that acted quickly and decisively generally had lower infection and mortality rates, including among the more vulnerable groups. Lockdown measures introduced significant changes in lifestyles within short periods, reducing pressures on nature, and digitalisation can offer some solutions. Similarly, decisive action triggering fundamental change in our production and consumption systems can make a real difference.

Europe’s long-term policy ambitions are identified in the European Green Deal, its strategies and action plans. The State of the Union address by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did not only reconfirm Europe’s commitment to these goals but also raised the climate ambitions further. These ambitions are to be achieved through a just transition, placing action on inequalities and social justice on equal footing with the climate objectives.

The coming months will be critical in defining the recovery and investment plans. To contribute to these discussions, we are organising a series of online debates, aimed at bringing expert knowledge and reflections to wider audiences.

Change will happen in one way or another. We need to make sure that each decision on this path takes us one step closer towards sustainability.


Agencia Europea del Medio Ambiente. Go to the news

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