EEA chief: ‘We need systemic-type environmental policies’

Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA). [European Union, 2015 Source: EC - Audiovisual Service]

This article is part of our special report Polluted air: the invisible killer.

You can never reach a decarbonised economy by making the combustion engine perform better and become more efficient, says Hans Bruyninck. Breakthrough technologies, not incremental efficiency gains, will bring Europe to its 2050 objectives, he argues.

A Belgian national, Hans Bruyninckx is the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA) since 2013. He was interviewed by EURACTIV Slovakia on the margins of the EU Clean Air Forum in Bratislava. The EEA publishes today its flagship report ‘The European environment – state and outlook 2020’.

The European Environment Agency releases today its report on the state and outlook of the environment. What is the main message since the last report was published five years ago?

There are four messages. The first message is urgency. We have recently had new reports on global climate and on tipping points by UN’s International Panel on Climate Change. The European Parliament has just declared a climate emergency. We have had reports on the loss of biodiversity and on the unsustainable use of resources.

These factors also play in Europe and they point out to the irreversible damage being done and to the danger of tipping points.

The second message is that there is still a serious implementation gap. Europe has been making progress on air quality, water quality, waste sorting and protecting marine areas, but we would be much better off if we implemented the European legislation as it was intended.

And the third message?

Even if we implement well, we will never reach the targets of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the objectives now set out in the European Green Deal.

Why? Current policies are either not ambitious enough or they don’t sufficiently address the key causes. We need systemic-type policies.

Can you be more specific?

You can never reach a decarbonised economy by making the combustion engine perform better and become more efficient. If you don’t work on the fundamentals of the chemical industry and move towards green chemistry, you can never come to zero pollution. You will not be able to recycle materials, if you keep increasing total waste production.

The fourth message is the big risk that we get stuck in the wrong investments for 2030. That we try to reach our 2030 goals by keeping and increasing investments in marginal efficiency gains in current systems like the combustion engine.

Or we invest big time in natural gas and we are stuck. Our billions are stuck, as well as our engineering, fiscal systems and legislation. We would close our way to 2050.

This is the high cost of marginal efficiency gains. We should invest in speeding up and scaling up breakthrough systems and technologies.

What are those?

Massive breakthrough of renewables, moving away from the combustion engine, but also speeding up and scaling up the stepping out of unsustainable systems.

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What about nuclear energy?

It is clear that nuclear energy is and will be part of the mix. The European Commission does not tell member states what mix they should have. At the same time, in the policy packages there is a high preference for renewable energies – wind, solar, hydro, bio and tidal energies.

You mentioned the need for a systemic change. Does it mean that we as Europeans will need to compromise with our living standards and cut on our consumption?

We will have to shift consumption. Do we need to decrease our caloric needs? I don’t think our bodies are fit for it. But we can shift towards more of a plant-based diet.

I am not saying we all have to become vegetarian or vegan. But if we just stayed in line with the meat standards of the World Health Organisation (WHO), we would already see a radically different agricultural system in Europe.

We can shift our mobility. In Copenhagen where I now live 83% of transport is walking, cycling and public transport. Brussels where the EU has its headquarters has a completely different mobility system.

We will have to make choices, but not necessarily give up things. In Copenhagen, I don’t have a car. It’s faster and I am healthier because the air is cleaner. I am not losing anything. We will be in big trouble, if we don’t act.

So, you reject the notion that we need negative economic growth in order to save the planet?

We do need a functioning economy giving people a decent job and income. We need to keep work in Europe which is framed as ‘competitiveness’.

I am talking about the competitiveness of the future. I prefer to speak about ‘economic performance’. It includes decent work, redistribution and a standard of living considered as ‘good’ by Europeans.

But GDP alone is a specific notion of growth. It is rather obvious that on a finite planet with 10 billion people you cannot continue to believe that current solutions based on the growth in the last 40 years are going to last. Saying we use 1.5 planets is an intellectual nonsense. There is no 0.5 planet. It means we are overusing, polluting and depleting the one planet we have.

The methodology for calculating growth has been questioned for a long time. Should it be changed?

Yes. We need measures for natural capital and social capital. We have them for financial capital. We overvalue financial capital, we undervalue social capital and we hardly value natural capital. It is obvious we need to rethink that.

Someone said there are only two types of people who believe infinite growth on a finite planet is possible: either idiots or economists.

The very notion of economic growth will change?

Yes, it will change towards a qualitative and more equally distributed growth. More equal societies have lots of benefits for environment, gender, education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of democracy. There is a really good research on that.

In which area has Europe made the biggest progress since you last released the report 5 years ago?

First, we see significantly less pollution in Europe – in air, water and industry.

Second, Europe will reach its 2020 climate targets. We are the only region on the planet that will have stuck to these policies over a number of years.

Third, the idea of circular economy is really taking roots in the European economy, industry and innovation.

The last point is that 5 years ago the Juncker Commission took power with 10 priorities. Environment was not one of them. Now we have a Commission with 6 priorities and the European Green Deal is number one. There has never been such an alignment in Europe between our scientific knowledge and the policy agenda.

I am more hopeful than ever. This is the most forward-looking agenda that Europe has ever had and we now need to deliver. This is the pivotal decade. If we don’t, we will be in bad shape.

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The verdict of the EEA’s “State of the Environment Report 2020” is scathing. But if we get it right, the European Green Deal can provide us with a unique opportunity to turn the tide, writes Ester Asin.

At the EU Clean Air Forum in Bratislava you said that EU air quality standards don’t match the standards of the WHO. How is it possible, considering that the EU is an environmental leader?

The EU is a leader. There is no other place on the planet where we have seen the same overall positive trend of decreasing air, water and industrial pollution.

But toxicology and epidemiology evolve. We understand better the ultrafine particles. As science evolves, the WHO comes with new standards. A clear link to them is made by the Zero Pollution Strategy which is now part of the European Green Deal. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius have clearly said that the 400,000 and more premature deaths due to air pollution are not acceptable.

412,000 people die prematurely in Europe due to pollution from fine particles (PM2.5). How is their health precisely affected?

First, PM2.5 have impact on people with lung and respiratory diseases and issues. Another vulnerable group consists of older people. On top of that, they cause brain strokes, heart attacks and all sorts of other problems. They can have an impact on the DNA and brain development, they can contribute to dementia and obesity. They are a cause of cancer.

There are multiple ways in which air pollution – whether PM2.5 or other forms – impacts on human health. And the most sensitive populations are suffering the most. It’s a silent and invisible killer. A really good research has illustrated that in case of a major organ transplant – like that of liver or heart – the factor most determining your survival chances is how close you live to a really busy road.

At the Forum, you said the deaths from air pollution could be decreased by 30%. This is a lot of lives saved. What is the solution?

The solution is to go to the drivers of the pollution. There has been a big debate in Europe on diesel engines, but we need to talk about combustion engines in general. If we decarbonise transport, it will have a big impact on climate, but also on air and health.

The other driver is the energy system which is particularly important in Eastern Europe still relying on coal. A lot of people are still heating their homes or even cooking with coal or wood. If we go to a system based more on renewables, we will not only deal with climate, but also environment and health. Climate policies are health-prevention policies.

The third driver is agriculture. The key element is ammonia. It is a precursor for other polluting substances, but by itself it has nitrogen which impacts human health. It comes from the use of fertilisers and manure.

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Air quality is rapidly becoming more and more of an emotionally-charged subject as the health implications become more explicit. Here is how things stand at both EU and national level.

The Slovak government subsidises shifting of domestic heating towards natural gas. Is it a good technological solution or should we go directly to zero-emission renewables?

Going from coal and wood to natural gas in heating and cooking is – especially in urban environment – is a big step forward. It’s better for the climate.

But we know that in the long run gas is not compatible with a zero-greenhouse-gas-emission economy and Europe’s ambition of becoming the first carbon-neutral continent. One has to be very careful in investing big in gas. New power plants, but also in-house technologies like boilers can become stranded assets in 20-30 years. For houses there are other solutions – for example induction and electric cooking.

Would the best solution be clean electricity?

Yes, that’s clear.

Some believe that one of the solutions for climate and air is hydrogen, especially in long-distance travelling and as an alternative to coke in steelmaking. What do you think about its perspective?

In transport, we’ve put quite a bit of hope in battery electric vehicle. But there is still a discussion between technology people on the best solution.

Although a lot of energy is needed to produce hydrogen, there are projects to use hydrogen for storing energy. For example, in the Antwerp harbour a feasibility project is looking at getting hydrogen from places with a lot of renewables, where it would be produced cheaply, and shipping it to Europe where it would be used when needed.

We haven’t yet explored the full potential of hydrogen economy. It might be a bigger part of the energy mix than we envision today.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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