It is time that the European Union started aligning health policy with environmental initiatives as the two agendas are intricately linked - says think-tank
Europeans value health as a key component of wellbeing. And as a healthier society means reduced healthcare costs, healthier workers and greater productivity it is naturally also in the interest of the public purse and authorities. This is why Europe can no longer ignore the impact of one of the most significant determinants for health and wellbeing: the environment. It needs to recognise and study further the inter-linkages between environment, climate and health. And it must do more to reduce and prepare for unwanted health consequences rising from environmental and climatic changes.
The environment is an essential source of nutrition and water. It is the air around us. The ozone layer protects us from ultraviolet radiation and cancer. But disruptions to our environment, often as a result of our own actions, are affecting basic elements of our wellbeing. Air pollution is a good example. Not only do air pollutants, for example from road transport, contribute to climate change but they also have more short-term consequences: causing people respiratory problems, contributing to acidification of soil and surface water and damaging vegetation. According to estimates by the Health and Environment Alliance and Health Care Without Harm Europe, reducing Europe's greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 would lead to health savings worth €52bn annually.
When you add to this picture floods, droughts, storms, changes in air quality, heat waves, fires and increased UV radiation – which is often linked with climate change - the impacts on people's health become even graver. Extreme weather events damage homes and medical facilities, and may put unbearable strain on health systems. Heatwaves - such as the one we experienced in Europe in 2003 - increase levels of air pollution, which causes cardiovascular and respiratory diseases that can be deadly especially among elderly people. Changing rainfall patterns affect agriculture and freshwater supplies, and therefore impact on the key elements of our wellbeing: food and water.
To meet these health-related challenges – and to enjoy the economic and ecological benefits - Europe needs a twofold approach. Firstly, it needs to mitigate its impact on the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, it must adapt its societies - including infrastructures and health systems - to extreme weather events, environmental disasters and changing weather and environmental conditions. We are affected by these events already today and the numbers are only likely to increase due to climate change. The work has started. The European Union has set itself ambitious energy and climate change objectives for 2020, which includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent. Also, the European Commission is currently working on an adaptation strategy. It expected to be published in 2013. However, health considerations have still not been fully recognised in Europe as a good reason for action.
In fact, it could be argued, that if the EU highlighted more the health-related costs due to environmental changes and benefits resulting from mitigation and adaptation efforts - it would also boost member states' interest to carry out the necessary measures. It would make the rationale for creating greener and more sustainable economies even stronger. It is notable that in addition to the direct health savings from reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, mentioned earlier, indirect health-related benefits could be seen across society. Designing greener cities that support more active lifestyles and promote new attitudes to transport would encourage healthier lifestyles and reduce cardiovascular and other chronic diseases. Healthier environments would increase the number of healthy life years and reduce hospital admissions, and use of medication - making enormous savings in public health expenditure.
On the other hand, adaptation measures build on planning ahead rather than paying for consequences later. It is in Europe's interest to prepare and protect citizens from new infectious diseases and the increased number of respiratory diseases and other climate change-related health effects. It makes sense that health systems and other sectors combine their mitigation efforts with cost-effective adaptation measures that take into account projected climatic and environmental changes for health. Cost-effective examples of adaptation measures could range from awareness campaigns to training medical staff and from early-warning systems to energy-efficient cooling facilities. The EU can no longer treat health as a separate policy issue. To stay healthy, promote health and wellbeing, prevent diseases and treat and care for people - Europe needs healthier environments and it needs to prepare for current and future effects of climate change. This forms the basis for creating a greener and more sustainable economy. Annika Ahtonen is an analyst at the European Policy Centre think-tank in Brussels, Belgium, and author of Ignorance ain't bliss: it's time to recognise the impact of the environment and climate on health