On the Quality of Life, Water and Air

15 November 2019 - // Interviews
Veronica Manfredi
Director for Quality of Life (Air, Water, Marine Environment, Industrial Emissions & Safety), European Commission.

In anticipation of the EU Water Innovation Conference (EUWIC) that takes place in Zaragoza, Spain on 12 December 2019, REVOLVE talks with Veronica Manfredi – Director for Quality of Life (Air, Water, Marine Environment, Industrial Emissions & Safety) of DG Environment in the European Commission.

The European Union is a global frontrunner in water management, pollution reduction and climate adaptation. However, a “water-smart society” requires faster action to reduce the risks, such as experienced by droughts and floods. To illustrate this point: between 1998 and 2009, floods in Europe caused 1,126 deaths, the displacement of about half a million people and at least €52 billion of insured economic losses. And a large part of Europe is still facing the consequences of drought, which has impacted ecosystems and water use beyond the normal, such as reducing the shipping capacity of the Rhine River.

Europe is a continent of innovators, and we look forward to discuss with them and with policy-makers what changes can and will be driven by the European institutions at technical, governance and policy levels, and how good practices can be extended more dynamically from pilot studies – often implemented with LIFE or Horizon 2020 funding mechanisms – as mainstream components of water management in EU Member States, by public authorities, private business or civil society and its organisations.

Register and join the different sessions and side-events on 11-13 December in Zaragoza.

How to improve the quality of life in Europe? Is it different to the rest of the world?

Air quality is a first area. Air quality in Europe has improved over the past decades, alongside a period of increasing gross domestic product (GDP) and national incomes. We know that decoupling emissions of air pollutants and economic growth works. But we cannot be satisfied with the rate of improvement. We know that more than 400,000 premature deaths in Europe every year are linked to air pollution. EU air quality standards are being exceeded in 20 Member States and in around 130 cities across the European Union.

The pollutants with the largest quantified health effects in Europe today are particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. That is why we continue to act forcefully on them, implementing our EU clean air policies for ambient air as well as emission reductions at source and at national level.

The air challenge clearly spans almost all economics sectors.

On a global level, much remains to be done, too. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 4.2 million premature deaths each year are attributable to outdoor air pollution with fine particulate matter: strikingly, 90% of these to occur in low- and middle-income countries.

Water quality is another example. Europe has achieved a lot in this area – safe drinking water, many safe bathing water spots and a huge reduction in loads of pollution because now the vast majority of households and businesses are connected to wastewater treatment plants. Our rivers and lakes have also become much healthier – many rivers that were essentially open sewers just a few decades ago are now good enough for some fish, a source for irrigation and even for drinking water.

But there is still a lot to do: in some places we really lag behind on treatment of urban wastewater and on making our rivers more liveable. And we must be sure to be ready for future impacts of climate change, such as more and more pharmaceuticals in our water, etc. Still, we compare very positively with many parts of the world, where pollution is sometimes dramatic and a large part of wastewater goes unfiltered into the rivers and seas. The EU has a lot to offer in terms of water management, water technology, and water governance.

What is the biggest threat to air quality in European cities – transport, industry or heating?

All of these activities – transport, industry, heating, but also agriculture – have a role to play in reducing emissions. Keep in mind that their respective share of emissions varies greatly from one pollutant to another. Heating emits some 50% of primary fine particulate matter in Europe, transport more than 40% of nitrogen oxides. And agriculture is responsible for over 90% of ammonia emissions (and ammonia reacts in the atmosphere to produce additional, secondary particulate matter, thus contributing substantially to harmful air pollution). The air challenge clearly spans almost all economics sectors. And it combines emissions from local emission sources to transboundary air pollution: we thus need all levels of government to act on it, together, from EU to national, regional and local.

What is the biggest challenge in industrial emissions and the solution in Europe?

The biggest challenge for industry in terms of its emissions is how it is going to decarbonize between now and 2050. The discussion is a broad one across the European Commission on how to support Energy Intensive Industry in making the changes that it needs. In particular, the Commissioner-designate for the Environment is asked in his mission letter by the President-elect to “help to deliver on our climate ambitions”.

Decarbonizing the economy will have tremendous positive impacts on air and water quality.

The main legislation governing the other environmental impacts of industry is the EU Industrial Emissions Directive. We are evaluating this Directive and so it is premature to give any conclusions. However, from the evidence gathered, we see that emissions to air from the regulated industries have declined very substantially since 2008, with the damage costs reducing by around 60%. The reduction in emissions to water has been more modest and perhaps that is an area that requires more effort in the future.

You have said that climate change always comes back to water. How does the European strategy tackle the global water crisis?

This is one of the things we hope to show in Zaragoza. Climate change is one of the issues we decided to focus on, for several reasons. We need to recognize that climate change is THE challenge of our times, so we all have an obligation to contribute to reducing emissions, and deal with its impacts. Water holds one of the keys: where water is consumed, energy is consumed. And where water is produced, used or treated, savings can be made or even energy can be produced. We should see those examples, learn from them and spread the message where we can.

Europe has a pivotal role to play. As a rich continent, we have a heavy footprint, also in water. It’s not just what we use here, it’s also what we import – so our behaviour has a global impact. And our solutions – more efficiency, more reuse, smart adaptation to climate change, the incredible technology developed in the EU – can be used anywhere in the world. Of course, it will never be enough to tackle the global water crisis. For that all countries need to act on the absolute urgency to deal with it, but we can certainly do more than just our share by working more with other countries and continents.

Confronted with rising temperatures, water limitations and depleting air quality, what is needed to improve the quality of life in Europe? What do we need to do to adapt to the climate crisis?

First and maybe unlike others, we need to listen to science. The EU is very strongly focused on averting the climate crisis because we believe the scenarios of the IPCC will come true if we leave things unchanged. We want to use the limited time we have left to avoid the worst impacts. That is why the President-elect of the European Commission has proposed some bold steps: enshrining climate neutrality by 2050 in law; and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases by 55% in 2030.

We need to recognize that fighting climate change and fighting pollution go hand-in-hand. Decarbonizing the economy will have tremendous positive impacts on air and water quality. For instance, a lot of the fine particles that we breathe in every day, come from cars and come from fossil fuel power stations. Deal with those, and we improve quality of life very directly.

In pursuing our ambitions, it is important to look at the bigger scale, and to find solutions that are carried out by all. For instance, without integrated water management, it would be difficult to guarantee enough water of the right quality for all users. But we will need to be inventive, and constantly search for innovation in technology, finance and policy that will be able to deliver solutions where this appears impossible at first sight. This is a point we want to highlight with the EIP Conference – faced with the challenges of tomorrow and the desire to guarantee a good quality of life well into the future, we need to promote innovation and creativity as much as we can.

Veronica Manfredi
Director for Quality of Life (Air, Water, Marine Environment, Industrial Emissions & Safety), European Commission.

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