This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Mr Jan Dusik, UN Environment Europe’s Director and Regional Representative.
On the afternoon of 23rd of December last year, bells rang to mark the end of term in schools across Sarajevo one week earlier than usual. However, this was not due to an early New Year celebration.
The air in Sarajevo had that day become so drenched in smog – a toxic mix of fog and smoke particles – that the city faced an immediate health threat. Pollution levels had soared to twice their normal range and at one point many times more. Local authorities were even calling on people to avoid going outside during peak pollution times.
These municipalities have now decided to work with UN Environment to green their district heating systems – one of the biggest sources of emissions in the country. Scores of white flags have also been raised outside classrooms which will gauge the impact of such moves by changing colour in line with air pollution levels.
At least 44,000 years of life are estimated to be lost in Bosnia and Herzegovina each year[i] due to dirty air – both indoors and outdoors. In 2012 alone, over 500,000 premature deaths in the region were attributable to ambient air quality and 100,000 to indoor air quality[ii]. Dip into UN Environment’s latest Global Environment Outlook report for the pan-European region and you quickly learn that poor air quality is now the number one cause of premature deaths there. It contributes to heart disease and strokes and is a greater factor in causing lung cancer than second-hand smoke, according to the World Health Organisation[iii].
The latest estimate from scientific literature is that 23% of all annual deaths worldwide are linked to environmental degradation[iv]. The environment is therefore – at least in part – key to responding to these health problems.
How to make a difference
Solutions to environment and health challenges require high-level political commitment. Pledges on clean air and Green Economy made by our region’s environment ministers in Batumi this year are exciting in this regard. Yet solutions can also be introduced on our streets and in our homes. In this way, we can all contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals.
Take one of our basic needs – food. Of course, health partly stems from good nutrition. Yet acidification and ozone concentrations have reduced potential wood and crop production in the region by up to 15%[v]. UN Environment supports organic farmers, including by helping them meet potential international buyers. One of our studies has demonstrated that in Moldova for example, when farmer earnings are included, economic gains from organic agriculture could immediately trump those from conventional farming even if crop yields are 20% lower. This is thanks to improved soil quality and higher market premiums, among other factors. Consumers can then choose to serve organic at the dinner table.
Consider another of our vital needs – shelter. Our homes and unfortunately lives are increasingly threatened by extreme weather linked to climate change, such as the 2003 heat wave that killed over 70,000 people, or the 337 floods that affected over seven million people in our region between 2000 and 2014[vi]. Intriguingly, many people in Europe are most exposed to air pollution when indoors, where we spend about 85% of our time. A UK study has demonstrated how our stress hormone cortisol decreases when we live close to green spaces[vii]. By making room for these in our cities and towns, and planting ‘green roofs’ and ‘living walls’ on our buildings for example, we can cut stress and the health problems it exacerbates. This is especially pertinent given that up to 80% of Europeans are predicted to live in urban areas by 2030[viii].
Meanwhile, large differences persist in the pan-European region on our most vital need – access to clean drinking water. Some 38% of the rural population in Central Europe does not have access to it. Measures to curb climate change can help, as extreme weather events combined with seasonally changed precipitation patterns may complicate achieving good ecological status for water bodies in Europe. Extreme weather also steals nutrients from rivers, increasing exposure of people and fauna to toxic chemicals[ix].
All about coherence
The health of people and our planet go hand-in-hand. Citizens can see and feel pollution particles in their lungs and eyes – it’s not a vague concept buried in reports. As a result, environmental hazards are becoming a leading cause of protest worldwide, calling policymakers into action.
More than half of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2015-2030 now have an environmental focus. By working towards these, policy responses to clean our energy, food and cities can also solve some of the world’s biggest health challenges. For this we need political will, dialogue between ministries and healthy consumption choices.
Each year, work towards the Global Goals will focus on specific topics. In 2017 one of those will be health. There is no better time to roll up our sleeves and step-up work on this from an environmental angle, for the next school term in Sarajevo and beyond.
About the author
Born in 1975, in Czech Republic, Jan graduated from the Law School of the Charles University in Prague (Master of Law 1998, Doctor of Law 2001). In 2002, he received a M.Sc. in Environmental Change and Management from the University of Oxford.
Between 1998-2009, he worked in the Ministry of Environment of the Czech Republic, where he was elected Minister in 2009.
Jan also served as the Vice-President of the Bureau of the UN Environment Governing Council in 2007-2009.
Jan joined UN Environment in 2011. By 2014, he was confirmed as UN Environment Europe’s Director and Regional Representative.