EU Zero Pollution Action Plan: are we on the right track?

16 Jun 2021 Lukáš Pokorný, Kateřina Šebková

On 12 May, the European Commission published the EU Zero Pollution Action Plan. Despite improvements in many areas, pollution still places a major burden on human health and the environment in the EU (fine dust pollution remains the most serious problem - both European and global). In addition to many negative effects on human health, pollution also has a significant negative economic impact: by damaging human health, it burdens national budgets for health care costs, but also degrades ecosystems and the quality of their services and, last but not least, reduces yields, e.g. in agriculture.

How are the EU's zero-pollution ambitions reflected in the area of chemicals? First of all, it is important to emphasize that the Zero Pollution Action Plan is based on the premise that pollution as such cannot be tackled narrowly sector by sector, but that synergies need to be found between EU policies and thus their effect strengthened. The objectives of the Action Plan are thus to contribute to the fulfilment of the 2030 Sustainable Development Objectives, which, according to the latest UN report, will remain unfulfilled if the current insufficient intensity of implementation is maintained. The EU's role in this effort thus takes on a whole new dimension: its vision of reducing water, air and soil pollution to harmless levels for health and ecosystems is an important contribution to these global goals.

Ambitious goals and the way to meet them…

And what are the specific objectives of the Action Plan? Reduce premature deaths from air pollution by more than half, reduce the number of people exposed to traffic noise by a third, reduce soil nutrient loss and pesticide use by half, thus helping to implement the EU's chemical strategy.

Let's stop for a moment with the latter problem. The risks from the production and use of chemicals are a global challenge that requires global response and cooperation. In October 2020, the European Union adopted the already mentioned chemical strategy, with the aim of stopping the use of the most dangerous chemicals and ensuring long-term sustainability for the economy and society, and also for the environment and health in this area. RECETOX is involved in the implementation of the Strategy through a high-level round table on chemicals (more here) and within the EU it also plays an important role in the field of human monitoring and risk assessment.

HBM4EU, as the European Human Monitoring Initiative is called, involves 30 European countries and the European Environment Agency, and once completed, will provide a unique information base on human exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, endocrine disruptors and chemical mixtures. Based on these data, to the completeness of which RECETOX also makes a significant contribution for the Central European region, it is then possible to take more effective measures to eliminate chemicals and protect human health.

The chemical risk assessment is the subject of a large-scale European partnership called PARC, which aims to collect new data, develop innovative methods and create a network of competent institutions to ensure adequate protection of human health from new chemicals.

Deepening international cooperation

It is clear that the issue of pesticides and chemicals in general cannot be tackled in isolation in our globalized world. Experience in other areas - climate change or biodiversity protection - clearly points to the need for deeper international cooperation. Although the European Commission plans to strengthen international cooperation (e.g. WHO, IMO, ICAO, UNECE), despite the benefits of such efforts, such objective still remains on the surface. If the intention of the action plan is really to bring pollution of the most dangerous chemicals under control, cooperation in this area will probably need to be anchored much better than it has been so far. One option is to set up an intergovernmental science-policy panel on chemicals, as proposed by a group of 12 scientists from around the world and supported by more than 1,700 scientific authorities from more than 80 countries. As Martin Scheringer from RECETOX, one of the co-authors of the article, says in an interview on the Universitas.cz website:

„The basic structure would be similar to that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): it should be intergovernmental, which means that it should cover the whole area of ​​chemicals and waste at the world's highest political level. Its recommendations should reflect the scientific consensus and should include an explanation of what the scientists disagree with and why. Of course, this would not reduce or replace the political process in any way. It would not propose any rules, but rather emphasize the scientific understanding of important threats to human and environmental health and outline possible policy measures in response to these threats.“

So is zero pollution achievable? If we stick to chemicals, we have to say that we still have a long way to go. It will be extremely difficult to balance the legitimate interests of the chemical industry and consumers, but also of the planet as a whole. It is difficult to imagine that the EU could follow this path alone - its Zero Pollution Action Plan is an ambitious document, but in order for European efforts to be successful, it will have to place far greater emphasis on international cooperation in this area.

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Take a look at the recording of a HERA project webinar, the topic of which was the EU Action Plan on Zero Pollution.


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