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How connections between people, money, mobility and health can contribute to rising EU climate ambitions

Our society is at risk of collapsing, facing a toxic mix of various crises: rising global temperature and seas, growing antimicrobial resistance and of course the current and future pandemics – the roots of which have been linked to the destruction of biodiversity and the climate emergency.  

Evidence has shown that air pollution has a deadly connection withCOVID19, exacerbating the burden on chronic disease patients, worsening the effects of the the pandemic, and hitting the most deprived the hardest. However, the measures introduced during the lockdown, although extreme, also showed the immediate benefits of reducing the number of cars on our streets, quickly, if fleetingly, improving the quality of the air we breathe. People want to experience this more and more, as during World Car Free day, even the EU institutions, surrounded by the busiest roads in Brussels, were full of bikes for one day. 

At the end of the first wave of the disease, it is perhaps the right moment to reflect on the wider implications for the public health community. How have our recent experiences changed people’s mindset about air pollution? How should European finances be re-allocated to reflect the new challenges? How can e-mobility help make our transport system fit for a healthy climate? What can health workers tell us about the links between health, climate and the environment? How are those developments connected to the increased EU ambition on Climate goals?

This EPHA overview addresses these points.

As lockdowns are eased and economies restarted, people around the world do not want a return to toxic levels of air pollution, and to replace one public health crisis for another. Public opinion is shifting towards more fundamental policy changes.  

This was highlighted in a recent opinion poll: a clear majority of urban residents from 21 European cities  do not want to see air pollution return to pre-Covid-19 levels and support profound changes in transport to protect clean air; with another opinion poll supporting calls for governments to prioritise clean air in COVID-19 recovery packages: with at least two-thirds of surveyed citizens in the United Kingdom, India, Nigeria, Poland, and Bulgaria supporting stricter regulation to tackle air pollution.

In local communities, people are also calling for change – in Hungary, local demands calling for the banning of deadly bonfires led to a national-wide ban!

As a soft power, one of the EU’s biggest assets  is its robust budget which finances the various policies within its competence. The renewed budget marked a willingness to marry economics with people’s well-being with the potential to change the rules of how EU policy will be written in the next couple of years.

The European Commission’s recovery plan to reboot the bloc’s economy badly hit by the pandemic, included a 25% climate spending target,  stresses the need to prioritise investments in sustainable vehicles, charging stations and cycling.

To ensure the recovery is sustainable, even, inclusive and fair for all Member States, the European Commission proposed the creation of a new instrument, Next Generation EU of € 750 billion, as well as targeted reinforcements to the long-term EU budget for 2021-2027, bringing the total financial firepower of the EU budget to € 1.85 trillion. 

We witnessed the rare phenomenon of EU leaders going  even further: the political agreement of the Special European Council of 17-21 July 2020 sets an overall climate target of 30% applicable to the total amount of expenditure from the EU budget 2021-27 and Next Generation EU, the main instrument for implementing the recovery package.

Following the call of leading European health civil society on more EU action on health, the structural changes included improved health governance, by including a new, stand-alone Health Programme, EU4Health, to strengthen health security and prepare for future health crises with a budget of €9.4 billion.  As we know, the budget, particularly for health was drastically cut in the EU leaders’ special Council meeting in July, but again, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen welcomed in her State of the Union speech the intention of the European Parliament to fight for more money for health. 

But how will the EU policy agenda and law making machinery reflect this new approach?

First, the European Green Deal remains a main source for policy action as it includes many entry points for public health. The Commission has already unveiled its adjusted Work Programme for 2020, which will prioritise the actions needed to propel Europe’s recovery and resilience. The EU’s biggest economy, Germany is taking the helm of the rotating presidency period and its priorities are already indicating the direction they want to steer the European ship .

The Internal combustion engine is the past; e-mobility is the future. However, this inevitable change can still be delayed and diluted or accelerated. It is crucial for public health to support this progressive development, if we want to improve the air we breathe.

The European Commission is now in the process of reviewing the existing rules for vehicle emission standards. These will be the last rules for conventional vehicles before moving to zero-and low emission alternatives, – tougher  emission standards will contribute to better public health

Following the fifth year anniversary of the Dieselgate scandal, it is more important than ever that ambitious policy action is needed in our transport system to protect public health, consumers and the environment. The most lethal legacy of Dieselgate remains its dangerous impact on human health. Dirty cars continue to pollute the air in Europe, aggravating the health and climate burden of emissions. Europeans remain on the frontline as they suffer the health consequences. And with 51 million grossly-polluting diesel cars and vans currently on Europe’s roads – putting a higher burden on the Eastern Europe – not enough has been done to protect people’s health. The recent position of the European Parliament, adopted with an overwhelming majority to reduce the burden of chronic disease and additional healthcare costs linked to nitrogen oxide (NOx) is a step to the right direction. However, it is vital for public health to ensure these high level ambitions are realised in the upcoming negotiations. 

Another question is how public money is allocated to the car industry and if sales of polluting vehicles will be subsidised or only zero and low emission versions?  A significant portion of the German economic stimulus, about €8 billion, is earmarked for the automotive industry. France announced a similar €8 billion COVID-19 support package for the automotive industry in France. Both the French and German programmes include additional support for electric vehicles, and while the German programme excludes purchase premium for the internal combustion engine, France has set strict conditions, supporting low-income households. Spain’s auto industry rescue plan is a tentative step to decarbonise the automotive sector and boost electronic vehicles but purchase incentives for polluting vehicles will delay the switch to emissions-free vehicles and impede carmakers from meeting their EU CO2 targets

The coronavirus pandemic has put healthcare to the test worldwide. The roots of the health crisis have been linked to the destruction of biodiversity, the climate emergency and particularly to air pollution.

Doctors, nurses, midwives and other health professionals  are now at the forefront of demanding for societal change to tackle climate and air pollution. Over 350 organisations representing over 40 million health professionals and over 4,500 individual health professionals from 90 different countries, wrote to the G20 leaders calling for a Healthy Recovery.  Medics4CleanAir are members of the medical community across Europe calling for action on transport pollution to protect their patients and the environment.

The climate emergency is a major threat to public health. According to the 2015 The Lancet report, systemic changes in ecological conditions and social dynamics will have far-reaching effects on human health and well-being, including via air pollution, heat waves, floods, water shortages, infectious diseases, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, under-nutrition and mental ill-health.

Based on the Emissions Gap Report 2019 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the EU’s aim at cutting its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 55% (instead of 40%) by 2030 compared to 1990 levels might not be sufficient to limit  increases in global warming to 2°C. The European Environmental Agency (EEA) also urges immediate and concerted action. Their “European Environment — State and Outlook 2020” study makes it clear that Europe is not making enough progress in addressing climate and environmental challenges.

As climate and our health are both public goods, the increased climate ambition of the EU of a 55% target, announced in the first, health- focused State of the Union speech of Commission President von der Leyen is a responsible step to the right direction. It requires bold political actions in transport policy, setting 2035 as the EU-wide end date for sales of petrol and diesel cars and vans.  By lowering greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution levels, we can help the most vulnerable in the fight against COVID-19 and any other future pandemics.

We are close but still not there yet. Science says that even the higher ambition is not high enough: a reduction of 65% GHG emissions by 2030 is necessary in order to be aligned with the Paris Agreement objective to keep temperature rise to below 1.5°C. The UNEP report underlines that, to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C, all countries need to reduce their GHG emissions by 7.6% yearly between 2020 and 2030. It means that the European Union should have an emission reduction target of at least 65% by 2030 and should aim at climate neutrality by 2040. Nevertheless, the question is that after the new EU ambition is set, now how this ambition will be translated into action across the EU and how the health savings linked to reduced pollution will contribute to this overall goal?

Next steps:

The climate emergency is undermining the foundations of good health. However, if we listen to people’s needs, sustainably allocate the appropriate financial resources, put our transport system on a zero emission pathway by embracing  e-mobility and listen to our health workforce, we can mitigate the climate emergency and minimise its impact on our health. The health costs savings linked to reduced emissions and the increased climate ambition might be the golden key offering the solution for our society, hesitating at the doorstep towards a sustainable future. Are we brave enough to walk through?

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