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Marked improvement in Europe's air quality over past decade, fewer deaths linked to pollution

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Better air quality has led to a significant reduction of premature deaths over the past decade in Europe. However, the European Environment Agency's (EEA) latest official data show that almost all Europeans still suffer from air pollution, leading to about 400,000 premature deaths across the continent.

The EEA's ‘Air quality in Europe — 2020 report' shows that six Member States exceeded the European Union's limit value for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in 2018: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Italy, Poland, and Romania. Only four countries in Europe — Estonia, Finland, Iceland and Ireland — had fine particulate matter concentrations that were below the World Health Organization's (WHO) stricter guideline values. The EEA report notes that there remains a gap between EU's legal air quality limits and WHO guidelines, an issue that the European Commission seeks to address with a revision of the EU standards under the Zero Pollution Action Plan.

The new EEA analysis is based on the latest official air quality data from more than 4 000 monitoring stations across Europe in 2018.

Exposure to fine particulate matter caused about 417,000 premature deaths in 41 European countries in 2018, according to the EEA assessment. About 379,000 of those deaths occurred in EU-28 where 54,000 and 19,000 premature deaths were attributed to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ground-level ozone (O3), respectively. (The three figures are separate estimates and the numbers should not be added together to avoid double counting.)

EU, national and local policies and emission cuts in key sectors have improved air quality across Europe, the EEA report shows. Since 2000, emissions of key air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (NOx), from transport have declined significantly, despite growing mobility demand and associated increase in the sector's greenhouse gas emissions. Pollutant emissions from energy supply have also seen major reductions while progress in reducing emissions from buildings and agriculture has been slow.

Thanks to better air quality, around 60,000 fewer people died prematurely due to fine particulate matter pollution in 2018, compared with 2009. For nitrogen dioxide, the reduction is even greater as premature deaths have declined by about 54 % over the last decade. The continuing implementation of environmental and climate policies across Europe is a key factor behind the improvements.

“It is good news that air quality is improving thanks to the environmental and climate policies that we have been implementing. But we can't ignore the downside – the number of premature deaths in Europe due to air pollution is still far too high. With the European Green Deal we have set ourselves an ambition of reducing all kinds of pollution to zero. If we are to succeed and fully protect people's health and the environment, we need to cut air pollution further and align our air quality standards more closely with the recommendations of the World Health Organization. We will look at this in our upcoming Action Plan,” said Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius.

“The EEA's data prove that investing in better air quality is an investment for better health and productivity for all Europeans. Policies and actions that are consistent with Europe's zero pollution ambition, lead to longer and healthier lives and more resilient societies,” said Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director.

The European Commission has recently published a roadmap for the EU Action Plan Towards a Zero Pollution Ambition, which is part of the European Green Deal.

Air quality and COVID-19

The EEA report also contains an overview of the links between the COVID-19 pandemic and air quality. A more detailed assessment of provisional EEA data for 2020 and supporting modelling by the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS), confirms earlier assessments showing up to 60 % reductions of certain air pollutants in many European countries where lockdown measures were implemented in the spring of 2020. The EEA does not yet have estimates on the potential positive health impacts of the cleaner air during 2020.

The report also notes that long-term exposure to air pollutants causes cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, which both have been identified as risk factors for death in COVID-19 patients. However, the causality between air pollution and severity of the COVID-19 infections is not clear and further epidemiological research is needed.

Background

The EEA's briefing, EEA's health risk assessments of air pollution, provides an overview of how the EEA calculates its estimates on the health impacts of poor air quality.

The health impacts of exposure to air pollution are diverse, ranging from inflammation of the lungs to premature deaths. The World Health Organization is evaluating the increasing scientific evidence that links air pollution to different health impacts in order to propose new guidelines.

In the EEA's health risk assessment, mortality is selected as the health outcome that is quantified, as it is the one for which the scientific evidence is most robust. Mortality due to the long-term exposure to air pollution is estimated using two different metrics: “premature deaths” and “years of life lost”. These estimates provide a measure of the general impact of air pollution across a given population and, for example, the numbers cannot be assigned to specific individuals living in a specific geographical location.

The health impacts are estimated separately for the three pollutants (PM2.5, NO2 and O3). These numbers cannot be added together to determine total health impacts, as this may lead to double counting of people who are exposed to high levels of more than one pollutant.

 

Climate change

ECB sets up climate change centre

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The European Central Bank (ECB) has decided to set up a climate change centre to bring together the work on climate issues in different parts of the bank. This decision reflects the growing importance of climate change for the economy and the ECB’s policy, as well as the need for a more structured approach to strategic planning and co-ordination.The new unit, which will consist of around ten staff working with existing teams across the bank, will report to ECB President Christine Lagarde (pictured), who oversees the ECB’s work on climate change and sustainable finance.“Climate change affects all of our policy areas,” said Lagarde. “The climate change centre provides the structure we need to tackle the issue with the urgency and determination that it deserves.”The climate change centre will shape and steer the ECB’s climate agenda internally and externally, building on the expertise of all teams already working on climate-related topics. Its activities will be organised in workstreams, ranging from monetary policy to prudential functions, and supported by staff that have data and climate change expertise. The climate change centre will start its work in early 2021.

The new structure will be reviewed after three years, as the aim is to ultimately incorporate climate considerations into the routine business of the ECB.

  • The five work streams of the climate change centre focus on: 1) financial stability and prudential policy; 2) macroeconomic analysis and monetary policy; 3) financial market operations and risk; 4) EU policy and financial regulation; and 5) corporate sustainability.

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Environment

UK and France can lead mobilization of tropical forest protection investment

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Lack of adequate finance has long been one of the biggest challenges facing natural climate solutions. Currently, the primary sources of revenue from forests, marine ecosystems, or wetlands come from extraction or destruction. We need to change the underlying economics to make natural ecosystems worth more alive than dead.  If we don’t, the destruction of nature will continue at pace, contributing to irreversible climate change, biodiversity loss and devastating the lives and livelihoods of local and Indigenous people, writes Emergent Executive Director Eron Bloomgarden.

The good news is that 2021 is off to a promising start. Earlier this month at the One Planet Summit, significant financial commitments were made for nature. Chief among these was UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to spend at least £3 billion of international climate finance on nature and biodiversity over the next five years. Prior to this announcement, 50 countries committed to protect at least 30% of their lands and oceans.

This is welcome news. There is no solution to the climate or biodiversity crises without ending deforestation. Forests make up roughly a third of the potential emissions reductions needed to achieve the targets set in the Paris Agreement. They hold 250 billion tons of carbon, a third of the world’s remaining carbon budget for keeping temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial age. They absorb approximately 30% of global emissions, hold 50% of the world’s remaining terrestrial biodiversity, and support the livelihoods of more than a billion people who depend on them. In other words, ending tropical deforestation (in parallel with decarbonizing the economy) is essential if we are to keep on the pathway to 1.5 degrees and preserve our essential biodiversity.

The question is how to commit this funding in a way that drives toward ending deforestation, for good.

For this, tropical forest protection needs to happen across entire countries or states, working with governments and policymakers, who with the right mix of public and private funding, can commit to reducing deforestation at massive scale.

This isn't a new idea, and it builds on lessons learned over the past two decades. Central among those is that large scale programs will not materialize in the absence of massively increased levels of both public and private support. Even funding support amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars is not always sufficient to give countries confidence that large-scale forest protection programs are worth the up-front investment in monetary and political capital.

The scale of funding needed is far beyond what can realistically be achieved with government-to-government aid flows or conservation funding alone; private sector capital has to be mobilized as well.

The best way to achieve this is by using international markets for carbon credits and capitalizing on the growing demand from the private sector for high-quality, high-impact offsets as they race toward net-zero emissions goals. Under such a system, governments receive payments for the emission reductions they achieve through preventing forest loss and/or degradation.

The key is for donor governments like the UK, France and Canada to help build the infrastructure to value nature properly, including supporting conservation and protection, as well as the establishment and expansion of voluntary and compliance carbon markets that include crediting for forest credits.

On this latter point, following Norway’s lead, they can use part of their pledged funding to establish a floor price for the credits generated by large-scale programs. This approach leaves the door open for private buyers to potentially pay a higher price in light of the soaring demand for such credits, while giving the governments of forest countries peace of mind that there is a guaranteed buyer no matter what happens.

We are at an inflection point where significant new forest protection programs could be mobilized by a quantum increase in public and private finance. Donor governments are in a position now to secure US$ billions in co-funding from a range of private actors in order to support national forest protection programs that generate carbon credits. Channeling additional public and mission-driven funds will catalyze private investment and would be transformative in accelerating the development of this critical market, which would benefit the green recovery, the creditworthiness of forest countries, and the well-being of the planet and humanity.

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Environment

Climate Diplomacy: EVP Timmermans and HR/VP Borrell welcome the US return to the Paris Agreement and engage with Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry

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Following the inauguration of President Biden, the EU is immediately engaging with the new US Administration on tackling the climate crisis. In a bilateral videoconference on 21 January, Executive Vice-President for the Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, will discuss the preparation of the COP26 climate summit with the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry. Executive Vice-President Timmermans and High-Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell issued a Joint Statement, welcoming the decision by President Biden for the United States to re-join the Paris Agreement: “We are looking forward to having the United States again at our side in leading global efforts to combat the climate crisis. The climate crisis is the defining challenge of our time and it can only be tackled by combining all our forces. Climate action is our collective global responsibility. COP26 in Glasgow this November will be a crucial moment to increase global ambition, and we will use the upcoming G7 and G20 meetings to build towards this. We are convinced that if all countries join a global race to zero emissions, the whole planet will win.”

The EU submitted a new Nationally Determined Contribution to the UNFCCC Secretariat in December 2020, as part of its implementation of the Paris Agreement. The EU has committed to a 55% net reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, as a stepping stone to achieving climate neutrality by 2050. The Joint Statement is available online here.

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