‘Zero pollution’ is a very good goal for the European Union to adopt—but only if zero means zero.
The European Commission recently released its Zero Pollution Action Plan, one of the long-awaited components of the European Green Deal. While eclipsed by the climate crisis, pollution—as with biodiversity loss—is also of existential importance.
The facts speak for themselves: pollution is the leading environmental cause of disease and premature death around the world. This ‘incessant exposure’ is linked to a silent pandemic of disease, according to the United Nations. Toxic air, water, soils and workplaces are estimated to kill at least nine million people a year worldwide. Indeed, this may be a huge underestimate: one recent study found that air pollution alone claimed 8.7 million lives annually.
Occupational cancers are the leading cause of workplace deaths in the European Union. Pollution is also recognised as one of the top five drivers of biodiversity and ecosystem collapse.
Eliminating pollution would save millions of lives each year and preserve the natural systems upon which life depends. The aim of the commission’s new action plan is to prevent, minimise and remediate the pollution of air, water and soil across the EU and to reduce noise. It is supposed to be a framework defining the overall ambition to reduce pollution, while also identifying key areas of action.
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The vision to move towards zero pollution is a major step forward. We definitely need ‘zero pollution’ to be part of the everyday language of decision-makers, just as the European Green Deal and ‘carbon neutrality’ have become.
The plan reaffirms commitment to the core principles of preserving, protecting and improving the quality of the environment and protecting human health. It also talks of embracing global responsibility for pollution, which has always been the Achilles’ heel of EU policy. And the document commits the EU to transparency and to uphold the precautionary, pollution-prevention and polluter-pays principles. These are all welcome and necessary.
The narrative is thus attractive and the intention to address pollution in an integrated fashion admirable. The commission proposal however largely re-presents agreed commitments, failing to ramp up action sufficiently to prevent pollution at source and make polluters pay.
Moreover, examining the text more closely throws up a multitude of problems—including that ‘zero’ does not actually mean zero. In a display of creative linguistics, the definition of zero pollution does not relate to eliminating pollution but to reducing it to levels no longer deemed harmful to human health or ecosystems.
In other words, the action plan allows for levels of pollution which the planet can handle or with which people can cope. But who should decide what are acceptable effects or exposure thresholds? This will provide a battleground over where regulatory lines are drawn for decades.
For many chemicals and pollutants there are health risks even at low levels, so ‘zero pollution’ should mean zero pollution. The World Health Organization Air Quality Guidelines from 2005 recognise that no ‘safe’ levels of air pollution exist.
Targets and objectives
At first sight, the plan includes a welcome list of 2030 targets and objectives, such as:
- improving air quality to reduce the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution by 55 per cent, compared with 2005;
- improving water quality by reducing waste, plastic litter at sea (by 50 per cent) and microplastics released into the environment (by 30 per cent), compared with 2016;
- improving soil quality by reducing nutrient losses and use of chemical pesticides by 50 per cent;
- reducing by 25 per cent the EU ecosystems where air pollution threatens biodiversity, compared with 2005;
- reducing the proportion of people chronically disturbed by transport noise by 30 per cent, compared with 2017, and
- halving residual municipal waste.
Many of these objectives however relate to full implementation of existing legislation, with no additional goals beyond what the law already requires. Others are going in the right direction but are clearly far from the advertised ambition of zero pollution.
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The action plan also outlines flagship initiatives and actions, including:
- aligning the EU’s air-quality standards more closely with the latest recommendations of the WHO;
- reviewing the standards for the quality of water, including in EU rivers and seas;
- reducing soil pollution and enhancing restoration;
- reviewing the majority of EU waste laws, to adapt them to clean- and circular-economy principles;
- fostering zero pollution from production and consumption, and
- reducing the EU’s external pollution footprint by restricting the export of products and wastes that have harmful, toxic impacts in third countries.
On air pollution, however, the list of illnesses and diseases to which exposure leads is growing, as science uncovers ever more connections between air quality and public health: asthma, bronchitis, cancer, early-onset dementia and reduced baby birthweights and cranial capacities. We are also well aware of the damage caused to nature.
We need a dramatic shift in policy towards air pollution—it is not a necessary evil of development. Aiming at aligning EU standards ‘more closely’ with the new WHO guidelines will not be enough: we need zero to mean zero.
Similarly, evidence is growing on noise pollution, emerging water pollutants, the need to protect our soils from chemicals pollution and the role of light pollution in the ‘insectageddon’ we are facing. The action plan makes promises to act on noise and water and on pesticides, but it is unclear how ambitious these will be. And it mentions light pollution as a priority for more research, but not action.
Costs of inaction
What we now need is for decision-makers really to commit to zero pollution, zero public money for pollution and no delay in action. The costs of policy inaction or late action are too high to be acceptable, while the benefits of action are higher than the costs. Eliminating pollution must become a mainstream commitment in all policy and legislative proposals, as well as in funding.
The commission must follow up on the action plan and turn the promises into an ambitious blueprint for binding action. Everyone knows that there are vested interests in weak legislation and that industry will complain of the costs, even if it should be part of corporate responsibility and the licence to operate. Companies should focus less on pushing for weak regulation and embrace the transformative innovation they are forever promising.
The Council of the EU and the European Parliament must fully embrace the zero-pollution vision but demand of the commission that it develop a detailed implementation plan, with clear actions, responsibilities and timelines. And we need all stakeholders to push that the promises become legally binding and duly reflected in funding. Our health, and the planet’s, depend on it.