High level panel: Why urgent action on the EU’s Zero Pollution ambition matters for health – voices from communities and vulnerable groups
POSTPONED Virtual, public event - moderated by Tamsin Rose. Tuesday, 19 October 2021, 14.00 –…
“The Green Deal should benefit the health of our citizens”
– Frans Timmermans on 8 October 2019 at the European Parliament
After European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen had unveiled who will join her team during her administration, the newly-elected members of the European Parliament had a chance to test these confirmed nominees during committee hearings (September 30th – October 8th) of each Commissioner-designate.
These hearings constituted a major opportunity for Commissioners-designate to express their commitment to act for a healthy planet for healthy people, before the future European Commission takes office on 1 November 2019.
The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) prepared a dedicated set of questions to test three of the Commissioners-designates on their commitment to act for a healthy planet for healthy people.
So how did the European Green Deal Executive Vice-President designate, the Environment and Oceans Commissioner-designate and the Health Commissioner-designate perform and what did they commit to as a team?
In a nutshell, Frans Timmermans, Virginijus Sinkevičius and Stella Kyriakides toghether committed to these environmental and public health milestones:
In the next months, HEAL will advocate for a swift application of these commitments in actual proposals. We will be a watchdog to ensure that new policy proposals reflect the urgency to act on the environment, climate and pollution crises threatening people’s health.
The below summary provides direct quotes from the hearings Frans Timmermans, Virginijus Sinkevičius and Stella Kyriakides which support HEAL’s mission and environmental health recommendations.
I want to be part of a team that leads Europe towards a more ambitious approach. Because when we are ambitious, we aren’t just improving the environment; we are creating social justice. We are improving the health, quality of life and the well-being of our citizens. When Europe fails to act on issues like pollution, we don’t just fail the environment; we fail the economy, we fail human health, and we fail the well-being of our citizens. On many fronts this joint portfolio is a huge opportunity. Our President-elect has asked her team to ensure that Europe leads on the transition to a healthy planet and to make sure we become the first climate-neutral continent. A healthy planet means a healthy environment.
Healthy oceans means healthy fish stocks, and healthy the fish stocks means a thriving community of fishermen and women. A healthy environment means healthy citizens, with a lower burden of disease. I will strive for a joined-up approach throughout my mandate in close cooperation with you.
As a father, as a citizen, and as a European Commissioner, I want to make pollution a thing of the past. I want Europe offering clean air, clean water, clean tech and safer chemicals. Zero pollution will demand a wide-ranging approach. It will mean specific initiatives in key areas, and reinforced measures to address the main sources of pollution. For chemicals, it will mean looking at hazardous substances and endocrine disruptors. For water, it will mean tackling new and harmful pollution sources, like nutrients, micro-plastics and pharmaceuticals. And it will mean a new approach to pesticides, in synergy with the work of the Commissioner for Health, on the farm to fork strategy, it’s hard to stimulate take-up of non-chemical alternatives. Our policies have always been rooted in rigorous science. That approach must continue under the Eighth Environmental Action Programme, which will help to mainstream the Sustainable Development Goals.
I don’t want to say that no progress has been made, but we need to do a lot more, because we know that we are here for one reason alone–at least as Commissioner-designate for Health, I’m here for one reason alone–and that is a commitment to protect citizens and the environment.
I see our Beating Cancer Plan touching upon all the actions in my mission letter, farm to fork, the green deal, anti-microbial resistance, innovation, affordability of medicines. It needs to address prevention, diagnosis, treatment, research, survivorship and palliative care. It needs to involve sectors and industries beyond the health sector, including education and environment.
A lot of what is in our environment–and we talked about this before–needs to be addressed for prevention. So yes, the Beating Cancer Plan is ambitious, but I believe that if we work together and we work responsibly, we can bring about change.
The Green Deal should benefit the health of our citizens. That is why Europe needs to move forward towards a zero-pollution environment to tackle environmental degradation and pollution, address air and water quality, hazardous chemicals, industrial emissions, pesticides, endocrine disruptors and microplastics.
Under a zero-pollution ambition, we will have three main pillars: a clean air action plan for all, a clean water action plan, and the non-toxic environment strategy, which has to go further than planned. We have moved a lot through these five years and really the basic work was done extremely well, many chemicals and legislation have undergone fitness checks, and REACH was reviewed with the identification of 16 objectives. So we can definitely build on that basis some very, very solid legislation.
I think REACH provides us with the best and most comprehensive approach in managing chemicals in the world, and there should definitely be compliance with REACH. The REACH review has been done, and those shortcomings regarding some dossiers, one-third of all dossiers, will all be addressed by the Commission. I look forward actually to including REACH as one of the key pillars of the non-toxic strategy. On the basis of what we have in REACH in terms of data, we can build a very strong non-toxic environment strategy, especially with regard to chemicals, and then even go beyond, for example to endocrine disruptors. These are currently under review, but as soon as we finish we will definitely be working on them.
Clean air in our cities and clean water in our rivers and oceans–that is what we need so that we can lead healthier lives on a planet that can sustain all of humanity, and where the economy grows to the benefit of the many, not the few, with jobs for everyone.
Air pollution is still one of the biggest killers in Europe. Do you know that more than 400000 premature deaths a year are a consequence of bad air quality. How can we accept this? To protect Mother Earth, we also need to stop extracting her limited resources.
The [EU air quality] rules are very clear, and I think we should be doing more to enforce the rules in our Member States. Of course, what the Commission does is first to try and find a solution through dialogue with the Member State. But Member States have signed up to this themselves. This is legislation that is urgently needed, but it is not applied in many Member States. I think the Commission will have to toughen up in terms of starting infringement procedures and it is, I feel, my personal responsibility to make sure that that’s going to happen.
We should not simply point at others while doing too little ourselves. So here’s an idea I would like to put to you: trees clean the air, cool the city, sequester CO2, shelter animal life and generally have the capacity to make us feel better. Let us embark on a massive project of reforestation across Europe.
It’s an unreasonable situation when 400 000 people are dying every year because of the air pollution in the EU. To look at it through a different lens, in terms of the economy, it’s EUR 24 billion a year. And, most importantly, the laws are there–but we haven’t yet managed to achieve full implementation of those laws. With regard to the World Health Organisation, our standard, for example, for fine particulate matter is at the level recommended in 2006. So I will present for the College’s endorsement a clean air action plan, setting out, first of all, a zero-tolerance policy on non-compliance with the current air quality standards. We have to address the EU legislative framework, mapping it and adapting it to the latest WHO recommendations. You asked about cities? First of all, it’s about dialogue and a mechanism for enhancing assistance to Member States and cities to adjust. Regarding clear zones, I would be very specific here that local authorities may choose to introduce traffic restrictions or CO2-free zones.
Specifically on endocrine disruptors, of course, it is important to fully implement the new strategy, which would be a serious step forward. Most important, it is based on the precautionary principle. And I think that endocrine disruptors have to be standardised and perceived as the CMR in the same level.
It is important that endocrine disruptors would be prohibited from toys, cosmetics which we apply directly on our skins, food contact materials.
We need more science, to see the cocktail effects as well, which we are not aware of at the moment.
Some Member States are already drafting action plans on this [endocrine disrupters]. We need to support them and I believe that we are all aware that endocrine disrupters are going to be a very important part of the agenda of the next Commission.
This [food contact materials] is an extremely important subject, as it’s about substances entering into the food and potentially changing or affecting human health, but also changing the constituents of the food. There’s a regulation on all food contact materials of 2004 which is now being evaluated, and I’m aware that this Parliament, in 2016, asked for another 13 possible food contact materials to be regulated. It is true that the rules the Member States follow differ. We do now have information–the report coming out on plastics–but we do not have information on a lot of other materials.
EFSA is looking into it, but I would add something to this, if I may, we also need to have information on the cocktail effects of different food contact materials, because this is also very important and can impact on human health. You asked if we’re going to regulate other food contact materials. I understand the concern. I would look at the science and I would move ahead with prioritisation, starting off with those that we know are potentially more harmful to human health. But it’s a very important area that we will be taking up, not only in Green Deal but also in farm-to-fork, because it affects the food that we’re eating.
We will have to come up with new measures because we are learning all the time how dangerous, for instance, microplastics are. I think that every time there is a new piece of research it points to a greater danger to our health and to our natural environment, so we need to do something about it. We need to do something about packaging as well. I think we should push further on banning packaging or making sure that packaging is no longer used that has these single use plastics in them.
Business as usual–if nothing changes, it will mean that in 2050 we will have more plastic in our seas and oceans than fish. I have to say that the Commission took a really great step together with Parliament: the single use of plastic items ban. This is a great step forward. We cannot stop at that and I am going, of course, to seek the full implementation of the plastic strategy, but the next step has to be microplastics, especially in textiles, tyres and pellets, that’s where the main source is; biodegradable plastics, which you have mentioned, we have to establish a clear regulatory framework and identify some applications for which biodegradable plastics are made of–chemicals, mainly–and then of course plastic packaging.
On pesticides, I recognise – and I think we all recognise – that the legislation has not been properly implemented. The PEST Committee came out with a report–which I want to thank you for–that was very critical but spoke a lot of truths, and now it’s going to be up to the next Commission and me, if I’m Health Commissioner, to deliver on this.
I can commit to lowering dependence on pesticides and working towards that and to working towards finding new, low-risk alternatives.
We cannot have an effective farm to fork strategy or an effective Green Deal if we are not facing and able to face and deal with issues such as pesticides.
We also need to encourage innovation in terms of using less toxic and low-risk alternatives. We need to do this. We need to provide this so that farmers do not use chemicals that are harmful to human health, and we know that they are.
If you look at the ravages of deforestation, at what that’s doing, if you look at the consequences of pesticides and other substances, we have a huge emergency. I have the feeling that we are on the verge of the same international awakening to the risks of the loss of biodiversity as we had a couple of years ago, in Paris, on climate change. And the two phenomena are completely interlinked.
I certainly feel a personal duty to go out to them [farmers], talk to them, listen to them and show what the plans are with ‘from farm to fork’, what we need to do on pesticides, what we need to do on fertiliser, and what we need to do to reduce emissions.
We have to subsidise ecological farming more and more. I’m always ready to take scientific advice. I’m always ready to look at it. I know that the World Health Organisation is always on top of such issues. They usually issue advice to Member States on how to deal with one or another issue, and, if confirmed, I will always be ready to listen respectfully to scientific advice if such threats, especially to human health, are raised.
We will review and update our existing climate and energy legislation. It is also clear that we have to consider additional measures to achieve our goals of cleaner transport, less energy-hungry buildings, a more sustainable food system. We cannot afford the luxury of complacency.
The path of challenges is a path of opportunity. It leads to a more sustainable, healthier and more prosperous society. Our journey to a green climate neutral planet has started-it will be hard. As a Commissioner, I will do everything in my power to take us down that road.
We need a dedicated Just Transition Fund to support the people and communities most affected, including those in industrial, coal and energy-intensive regions.
It is absolutely clear that for this transition, especially in those countries still heavily dependent on coal, we will need much, much bigger funds than even what a Just Transition Fund can muster. But it’s also absolutely clear to me that there is no future in coal. So we will have to find a solution for that problem, and those areas that are heavily dependent on the coal industry–whether it’s in Poland, or in Slovakia, or in Spain, or in Greece, or in Germany–have the right to European solidarity, because all of Europe profits if they make that transition.
Poland will have to make this transition out of coal, and it’s going to be painful, but the rest of Europe should say ‘we are standing by your side in this; we will help you in this, and we will make sure you have the funds to make that transition’.
Honourable Members, transport is one of the most polluting sectors of our economy. We need to tackle this head-on. All over Europe, people depend on their cars for the quality of their daily lives, not seldom even for their livelihoods. I know that, and I don’t want a car-free Europe; I want emission-free cars in Europe, and I want people to use clean public transport.
It is important that we would protect the most vulnerable: elderly people, children. It is important that endocrine-disruptors would be prohibited from toys, cosmetics which we apply directly on our skins, food-contact materials.
Protecting citizens from risks like endocrine disruptors, reducing our dependency on pesticides, promoting animal health and welfare, are issues on which I want to join forces with you. At the same time, I will work closely with national governments, knowing very well that implementing and enforcing EU rules in this area, is something we can certainly improve on.
We need to take our work on the circular economy to a new level, focusing on sustainable products and waste prevention. We must reduce, reuse and recycle to unlock all its potential for a low-carbon economy. We will propose a new Circular Economy Action Plan, focusing on sustainable products and resource use, especially in resource-intensive sectors, such as textiles and construction.
I want to raise the profile of circularity. I want to make sure it is not only a word, but also an action. If we ensure the circular use of just 4 materials: steel, aluminium, cement and plastic we cut their industrial emissions in half.
We have to keep that ambition and I think we have to go for a non-toxic cycle. It is very important that plastics are made from non-toxic chemicals, which can be later reused in the circular economy and then, through innovation, we can have many different appliances.
Chemicals are around us; they’re around us everywhere in our daily life and also in over 100 EU legislation acts. So it is important, of course, that chemicals would be addressed, as it was stated in the 7thEnvironmental Action Programme (EAP). It is important that ensure that safe, non-toxic materials and products–we have, we are champions in REACH-compliance. REACH is something that doesn’t have alternatives in the world; we have to make use of it even more. So it is important to boost innovation.
There is a clear link in the portfolio as a whole between what is stated in my mission letter: zero-pollution strategy, biodiversity and the circular economy. If we take one of these out, the others will not really succeed. This is very important. That’s why all of these actions are going to have to form the central part of the New Green Deal. Of course zero pollution is linked with the non-toxic strategy. Why? Because, first of all, only by not wasting our resources can we successfully put them back into the cycle. Secondly, the circular economy will only be successful when we actually find a way to have a non-toxic cycle. So basically, with plastics that are made of friendly chemicals–let’s call them this–we know that we can reuse them in many, many other ways, and they can then be applied in different sectors. This is the only way for a successful circular economy, and throughout my mandate I will be reaching for that.
For more details:
European Green Deal Executive Vice -President designate Frans Timmermans
Environment and Oceans Commissioner-designate