European Environmental Agency

pollutionThe recent 2016 EU Air Quality Report nicely shows  that air quality in Europe has been improving since 2000 across nearly all indicators. Whenever I can present a graph like the one on the right, I am happy. It makes me smile. I feel things are improving and my kids have a chance at a better future. With all the recent terrible events out there, the rise of right-wing attitudes and the many wars that are still being fought, these are finally good news.

BUT, like oh so many times, there is a catch. In fact, there are two catches.

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In this article I look at air pollution levels within Europe and among the G-20, discuss some of the recent academic research and potential solutions at the national and individual level.

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Come on, face it, the ice bucket challenge was really only a fad designated towards rich nerds to test their latest ice cube dispensor on their new fridge. My message today goes out to all those hard-core, punk-loving, high altitude and H2O-proximity cravers that search for some time off, to relax, to recover, to re-fill the adrenaline tank before heading off again.

Winter is nearing!

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Circular Economy is one of the phrases that you’ll nowadays most often hear at any sustainable development debate. It is basically a new catch phrase for anything that was previously associated with sustainable development. Since still nobody really knows how to make an economy sustainable, circular, square or rectangular, now, for yours truly, the EEA managed to come up with a very simple solution to the problem.

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EEA info graphic

The EEA just twittered that “Across EEA-33 countries, emissions of lead have decreased by 89%, mercury by 66% & cadmium by 64% from 1990 to 2011.”

What else to say than a big THANKS to those initiatives, organizations, interest groups, green lobbies and whoever else out there was putting effort into making these reductions come true?

Well – one thing to say is that there are still 1/10th of lead emissions to go, 1/3 of both mercury and cadmium. So keep it up! And thanks to the EEA for helping to regulate these heavy metals out of our lifes.

For all those interested in knowing why we don’t want these heavy metals in our lifes, here are some points that, not surprisingly, have been known for quite a long time.I copy freely from this 1987 book chapter by Hutton, entitled “Human Health Concerns of Lead, Mercury, Cadmium and Arsenic”.

The three metals, lead, mercury and cadmium, and the metalloid arsenic have all caused major human health problems in various parts of the world. The overt toxicity of these elements has been recognized for many years; indeed, the harmful effects of lead were known as far back as the second century BC in ancient Greece (Waldron, 1973).

In cases of high exposure, clinical signs and symptoms can be observed. At lower exposure levels clin- ical manifestations may be absent but effects may be observed at the physi- ological or biochemical level.

The US Environmental Protection Agency gives a short, non-exhaustive list of the effects of lead on humans:

  • damage to the brain and nervous system
  • behavioral problems
  • anemia
  • liver and kidney damage
  • hearing loss
  • hyperactivity
  • developmental delays
  • in extreme cases, death
  • nerve damage to the sense organs and nerves controlling the body
  • increased blood pressure
  • hearing and vision impairment
  • reproductive problems (e.g., decreased sperm count)
  • retarded fetal development even at relatively low exposure levels
  • persistent fatigue
  • irritability
  • loss of appetite
  • stomach discomfort and/or constipation
  • reduced attention span
  • insomnia

The US EPA gives a non-exhaustive list of the effects of mercury on humans:

  • Hand tremor
  • increases in memory disturbance
  • slight subjective and objective evidence of autonomic dysfunction
  • Autoimmune effects
  • Developmental neuropsychological impairment

And, finally, the US EPA information on cadmium‘s effect on humans:

  • Acute inhalation exposure to high levels of cadmium in humans may result in effects on the lung, such as bronchial and pulmonary irritation. A single acute exposure to high levels of cadmium can result in long-lasting impairment of lung function. (1,3,4)
  • Cadmium is considered to have high acute toxicity, based on short-term animal tests in rats. (5)
  • Chronic inhalation and oral exposure of humans to cadmium results in a build-up of cadmium in the kidneys that can cause kidney disease, including proteinuria, a decrease in glomerular filtration rate, and an increased frequency of kidney stone formation. (1,3,4)
  • Other effects noted in occupational settings from chronic exposure of humans to cadmium in air are effects on the lung, including bronchiolitis and emphysema. (1,3,4)
  • Chronic inhalation or oral exposure of animals to cadmium results in effects on the kidney, liver, lung, bone, immune system, blood, and nervous system. (1,3)
  • The Reference Dose (RfD) for cadmium in drinking water is 0.0005 milligrams per kilogram per day (mg/kg/d) and the RfD for dietary exposure to cadmium is 0.001 mg/kg/d; both are based on significant proteinuria in humans. The RfD is an estimate (with uncertainty spanning perhaps an order of magnitude) of a daily oral exposure to the human population (including sensitive subgroups) that is likely to be without appreciable risk of deleterious noncancer effects during a lifetime.  It is not a direct estimator of risk, but rather a reference point to gauge the potential effects.  At exposures increasingly greater than the RfD, the potential for adverse health effects increases.  Lifetime exposure above the RfD does not imply that an adverse health effect would necessarily occur. (6)
  • EPA has high confidence in both RfDs based primarily on a strong database for cadmium toxicity in humans and animals that also permits calculation of pharmacokinetic parameters of cadmium absorption, distribution, metabolism, and elimination. (6)
  • EPA has not established a Reference Concentration (RfC) for cadmium. (6)
  • The California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) has established a chronic reference exposure level of 0.00001 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3) for cadmium based on kidney and respiratory effects in humans. The CalEPA reference exposure level is a concentration at or below which adverse health effects are not likely to occur. (7)
  • Limited evidence exists for an association between inhalation exposure and a reduction in sperm number and viability in humans. (1)
  • Human developmental studies on cadmium are limited, although there is some evidence to suggest that maternal cadmium exposure may result in decreased birthweights. (1)
  • Animal studies provide evidence that cadmium has developmental effects, such as low fetal weight, skeletal malformations, interference with fetal metabolism, and impaired neurological development, via inhalation and oral exposure. (1,3,4)
  • Limited animal data are available, although some reproductive effects, such as decreased reproduction and testicular damage, have been noted following oral exposures. (1)
  • Several occupational studies have reported an excess risk of lung cancer in humans from exposure to inhaled cadmium. However, the evidence is limited rather than conclusive due to confounding factors. (1,3,6)
  • Animal studies have reported cancer resulting from inhalation exposure to several forms of cadmium, while animal ingestion studies have not demonstrated cancer resulting from exposure to cadmium compounds. (1,3,6)
  • EPA considers cadmium to be a probable human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) and has classified it as a Group B1 carcinogen. (6)
  • EPA uses mathematical models, based on animal studies, to estimate the probability of a person developing cancer from breathing air containing a specified concentration of a chemical. EPA calculated an inhalation unit risk estimate of 1.8 × 10-3(µg/m3)-1. EPA estimates that, if an individual were to continuously breathe air containing cadmium at an average of 0.0006 µg/m3 (6 x 10-7 mg/m3) over his or her entire lifetime, that person would theoretically have no more than a one-in-a-million increased chance of developing cancer as a direct result of breathing air containing this chemical. Similarly, EPA estimates that continuously breathing air containing 0.006 µg/m3 (6 x 10-6 mg/m3) would result in not greater than a one-in-a-hundred thousand increased chance of developing cancer, and air containing 0.06 µg/m3 (6 x 10-5 mg/m3) would result in not greater than a one-in-ten thousand increased chance of developing cancer. For a detailed discussion of confidence in the potency estimates, please see IRIS. (6)

This links to my point from yesterday, that yes we have good scientific knowledge of many processes, but a certain lack of interest to thoroughly follow up on them. E.g. with all the knowledge about the dangers of these heavy metals, it seems still surprising that it took soooooo unbelievable long to regulate down these heavy metals to only 1/3 of the 1990 levels, especially given that we already knew so well before 1990 that these pollutants are so dangerous!


I just came across this truly great, in-depth study by the European Environmental Agency entitled “Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation”, EEA Report No 1/2013. Honestly, I view this as one of their most interesting reports for some while. I can really only urge everyone to take a look at that report. You can download it HERE and even obtain a free hardcopy HERE.

In that report the EEA looks at early warnings from various health hazards like lead in petrol, tabacco, or DDT; at different ecosystems; at emerging issues like radiation from nuclear incidents or mobile phones as well as at genetically-modified crops or nanotechnology.

Now, I have not had the time to go through the full report, but – and this is despite all my praise of the report – I noticed that the twelve late lessons to take away are, let’s say, somewhat too general. They are

  1. Acknowledge and respond to ignorance, uncertainty and risk
  2. provide monitoring and research in early warnings
  3. improve scientific knowledge
  4. etc…

So while these lessons are clearly useful to forward, I do not view these as particularly helpful. We are working on each of these lessons already and, in my opinion, they do not help us to see the source of the problem. The point is this: in every of the cases that the report analyzed, there was already sufficient scientific knowledge available that clearly gave some idea of the costs of what would happen if that technology would be implemented. The fact is that this knowledge was simply ignored.

My guess is that it was ignored because policy makers did not want to constrain innovation in their region/country, did not want to place the burden of proof on the companies themselves, and feared too much that international competition would take advantage of any precaution or reluctance in blindly moving in unknown territory. And this is the real danger. European companies recently even wrote a letter suggesting that the EU is restricting innovation by too much, see HERE.

We are simply not taking time anymore to fully reflect on decisions. We think that decisions need to be taken now and as quickly as possible, best yesterday, in order to keep competitiveness and innovation running. In doing so we thoroughly ignore potential impacts of any uncertain technology that may harm the biosphere for years to come. And since technology and innovation is advancing so quickly, who knows where this race will end!

This is especially more worrying since some technologies, like those that e.g. induce cancers, sometimes require years and years of thorough research in order to fully understand their true costs. Thus, one will see some individuals – company shareholders- running ahead collecting the benefits now, while a potentially larger mass of individuals may bear the brunt of the costs in the future.

Another problem is that the World Trade Organization is reluctant to accept trade barriers, even if they are based on reasons of uncertain technology or health hazards. How should countries undertake proper policy if their well-intended regulations are undermined by international laws? What if this leads to trade-wars or international conflicts only because one country is more profit-maximizing oriented than another that places sustainability at the forefront?

In my opinion, these points above are the real problems to address and the real lessons to take away. Early warnings do not work for those reasons above and they will not continue to impact technology adoption unless we take care of these issues!

By the way, a nice point of the report is this: Of 88 cases of claimed ‘false positives’, where hazards were wrongly regulated as potential risks, only four were genuine false alarms. The frequency and scale of harm from the mainly ‘false negative’ case studies indicate that shifting public policy towards avoiding harm, even at the cost of some false alarms, would seem to be worthwhile, given the asymmetrical costs of being wrong in terms of acting or not acting based on credible early warnings.

In 2011, the European Environmental Agency published a report entitled: “The European environment — state and outlook 2010: assessment of global megatrends.

Five groups of megatrends were investigated for their potential impact on the development in Europe: Social, technological, economic, environmental and political. The study aims to set out those trends that may influence Europe’s future and prompt questions, such as:

  1. How can we avoid urgent and critical global feedbacks in resource-using systems with limited knowledge?
  2. To what extent should we invoke the precautionary principle given our limited knowledge of environmental risks?
  3. How should we ensure that lack of knowledge does not become a reason for inaction?

This report is rather well-done, concise (which is generally not the case for EU reports), and provides an interesting perspective and insight into how the EEA views the various challenges to come.

While the report might have benefited from more clearly differing between European megatrends and those from the rest of the world (ROW) as well as a sterner analysis of their interactions and feedbacks, the report is a good first step in that direction.

Let’s go through the main points.



1.     population changes
Population is expected to peak in 2050 at 9 billion and then slowly decline to 8.4 billion by 2100. The 95% confidence interval ranges for 2050 ranges from 7 to 10.5 billion. The report falls short here by simply stating that population growth affects all global megatrends. What is important here is to understand that Europe stands in front of a severe policy dilemma. Europe’s population is expected to slowly start decreasing around 2030, while its population will become older. This has two impacts: a slowdown or decrease in population will ease urban sprawl and help reduce environmental impacts. On the other hand, it will also impose difficulties for the social security systems. Thus, Europe has an incentive to allow for a population inflow in order to reduce stress on its social security, but at the same it would want to reduce population inflow in order to minimize impacts of population growth on local environments. Limited migration into Europe may lead to inter-European competition for European population. For example, Luxembourg wants to significantly increase its population until 2050 in order to help its social security. Poorer countries will lose out in this potential inter-European battle for labour, thus potentially inducing conflicts and stress on the stability in Europe. Consequently, this is a problem that needs to be solved with careful European-wide cooperation and interaction. Better to start early on this rather than late…

2.     Urbanization
Urbanization is expected to increase and by 2050 around 70% of the world population may live in urban centres. Here the report suggests that urbanization increases consumption, social and political unrest if governance structures are weak, and diseases may spread more easily. Apart from the potential disease (see point 3) spread, it is hard to see inhowfar a greater rate of urbanization will significantly impact Europe in the future. Some thoughts on urbanization and ecosystems can be found HERE.

3.     Diseases and pandemics

This has been raised in point 2 and will undoubtedly turn out to be a problem during some point in the future. For the case of communicable diseases like bacterial infections or viral ones, the only thing that one can do against potential disease spread is to establish international cooperation, early warning mechanisms, intervention centres close to airports and large urban centres, and backup plans in case all approaches fail. Oh yes, and stock up on those rare antibiotics of course.

Apart from communicable diseases like bacterial infections or viral ones, there exist non-communicable (NCD) ones like diabetes and obesity. These have seen a significant increase lately and are mostly associated with intermediate stages of economic prosperity. This is mostly a cultural problem though and can be addressed through educational measures. Another approach has been suggested by Catarina Goulao and Agustin Perez-Barahona in their article “Intergenerational transmission of non-communicable chronic diseases”. They suggest that people underinvest in health since these NCDs are still transmitted through society via culture, and therefore the government should tax those activities that increase NCDs. For example, this would turn out to be a tax on alcohol, fast food, etc…


4.     Accelerating technical change

“Approving new technologies in regions with weaker risk assessment and governance structures can create risks that could easily spread across our highly interlinked world. Unclear delineation of public and private responsibilities is likely to magnify controversies about risk control and associated costs.”

This is definitely an important point here, see e.g. Fukushima in Japan, nanotechnology in general, etc. How can Europe reduce its risk exposure to potentially dangerous technologies? Quite easily through huge investments in R&D and becoming the world leader in those technologies itself, thereby being able to more explicitly control the producers. This kind of leadership role may diminish in the future if other regions turn out to be technology leaders and more innovative, but there is nothing that stops Europe from furthering and developing its technology leadership, investing more money in R&D, etc. Nevertheless, currently Europe as a whole is still a fair step away from spending significant sums on R&D.  Plus, there does not seem to be a Europe-wide cooperation on R&D spending, with only Sweden and Finland spending more on R&D /GDP than the US, while many European countries spend less than 2% of their GDP on R&D.


5.     Economic growth

“Rapid growth accelerates consumption and resource use. But it also creates economic dynamism that fuels technological innovation, potentially offering new approaches to addressing environmental problems and increasing resource efficiency.”

It goes without saying that economic growth affects every aspect and every other global megatrend. What is missing in the report is a clearer picture of whether and how it would make sense to turn to alternative approaches to measure wellbeing, and thereby giving economic growth less of a headline than is generally being done.

6.     From a unipolar to a multipolar world

“Global power is shifting. One superpower no longer holds sway and regional power blocs are increasingly important, economically and diplomatically. As global interdependence and trade expands, Europe may benefit from improving its resource efficiency and knowledge-based economy.”

Furthermore, ” [w]hen countries grow relatively fast they gain in economic power through their enlarging production and consumption markets. They are able to exercise that power at international negotiations on economic matters (such as trade barriers and product standards) but also in a wider sense, including participation in climate change and other environmental negotiations.”

Although this is an understandable assessment from the European perspective, it is an unfortunate and absolutely non-cooperative approach or worldview. More on this below.

7.     Intensified global competition for resources

“How will Europe survive in the intensifying scramble for scarce resources? The answer may lie in more efficient production and resource use, new technologies, innovation and increasing cooperation with foreign partners.”

Nothing to add here apart from the question of why the report did not think of the possibility of opting/pushing for a self-sufficient Europe? More on this below.


8.     Decreasing stocks of natural resources

Here we are still talking about deforestation (though less so in Europe), biodiversity loss, urban sprawl, soil degradation, etc. While there is a relative stability of natural resources in Europe, this is less so the case for the other parts of the planet. To prevent spillovers from these regions to Europe, through e.g. also climate change or inter-regional pollution, only a changing consumption habit and international cooperation will work. See below.

9.     Increasingly severe consequences of climate change

“Accelerating climate change impacts will threaten food and water supplies, human health, and terrestrial and marine life. Europe may also see more human migration and aggravated pressure on resources supplies.” While this is likely to be true, it must also be said that the expected human migration from e.g. sub-Saharan Africa, one of the regions that is currently and is expected to be impacted the most, will not be too large and manageable. For example, estimates by Marchiori, Maystadt and Schumacher (2012) suggest that by the end of the century, we might see 12 million migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to the rest of the world. Not all of these will migrate to Europe of course, and if they would, it would be roughly 1.7% of Europe’s population in 2100.

10. Increasing environmental pollution load

In contrast to e.g. CO2, pollutants like ground-level ozone, or particulate matter tend to be mostly local pollutants. Most of these are still expected to increase as they are a by-product of production. However, since they are local pollutants, it is unlikely that their production in the rest of the world will have a significant impact on Europe in the future.


11. Environmental regulation and governance: increasing fragmentation and convergence

“The world is devising new governance models, including multilateral agreements on numerous issues and public-private ventures. In the absence of global regulation, advanced European standards and procedures have often been adopted worldwide.”

Here the report starts to develop into the direction that I would have liked to see from the start. As seen in GMT 11, Europe has been and still is a role-model, especially in terms of setting standards and procedures that other countries eventually follow.


So these global megatrends bring about three important potential ways in which Europe could/should develop in the future. These three ways have synergies and are not mutually exclusive.

Firstly, Europe should try to become more self-sufficient, or as independent as possible from other regions. The much-discussed Common Agricultural Policy is an important step in that direction. One problem for self-sufficiency is that Europe has very little or no stocks of several critical resources, like coal or oil, at least at competitive market prices. For this reason, R&D in alternative energy resources, or raw material inputs, should be more strongly supported. Naturally, the more independent Europe is from other regions, the less will the GMTs (especially GMT 4-8) from these regions affect Europe.

Secondly, Europe should start a better cooperation internally. This would give it some leeway in international treaties (GMT 6 and 11). At the same time, it would ease on those population dynamics, and thereby help a more coordinated and socially optimal approach to reduce stress on its aging social security systems (GMT 1).

Thirdly, Europe should move towards a more integrated measure of wellbeing, or progress, than is being represented by GDP. This will take into account effects related to GMT 7-10, since then more importance will be placed on environmental effects that affect wellbeing than in the traditional approach to GDP. While it is well-known that alternative measures of wellbeing have shortcomings of their own (, or‎), it is important to recognize that only one dimension of wellbeing is being captured with GDP, namely that of consumption. While it is true that other measures are strongly positively correlated with GDP, like health or even happiness, it is also important to recognize that other measures are negatively related to GDP, like biodiversity, urban sprawl, resource use and several types of pollutant. Similar, other social indicators, like personal stress, or number of divorces, social care, tend to be negatively associated with GDP. Consequently, it would be useful to address these with a more inclusive measure of wellbeing.

UPDATE: The EEA is now updating the various chapters of this report. Stay tuned!

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