This year’s edition of EU Green Week, Europe’s biggest annual environmental event, has closed with record involvement from citizens and stakeholders around the EU. Dedicated to the EU ambition of a zero pollution, the event zoomed in on efforts to tackle pollution of air, soil and water, creating a world where pollution is no longer harmful for people’s health and ecosystems.
From invisible particles in the air we breathe, chemicals in the soil that sustains us, to plastics in our seas, pollution affects us all. In May, the European Commission presented the EU Zero Pollution Action Plan, laying out this vision and proposing actions and targets how to get there. EU Green Week brought different groups in society together with stakeholders and policymakers to thrash out solutions and discuss how we can all work together to make our ambition for a zero pollution, toxic-free environment a reality. Reducing pollution requires clean choices for regional and urban mobility and energy, investments in buildings and infrastructure, as well as overall spatial planning.
The event included an opening event in Lahti, a high-level virtual conference in Brussels with numerous thought-provoking discussions on the links between healthy lives and the environment, the relationship between pollution and biodiversity, as well as ways to inspire eco-friendly habits.
With almost 600 partner events in 44 countries around Europe – from workshops for kids, discussions on green recovery, hackathons, clean-up actions and citizen engagement activities – Green Week highlighted the power of small individual actions alongside the structural changes that the European Green Deal aims to bring about.
People of all ages and all walks of life – from artists, footballers to chefs – demonstrated how important tackling pollution is to all parts of society. Over 5 300 people attended the virtual conference, and an estimated 80 000 participated in partner events.
Opening the conference, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said:
It is painfully clear that human activity has negative impacts on other forms of life. Pollution is threatening the survival of more than one million plant and animal species, on land and at sea. It is one of the five leading causes of biodiversity loss. We cannot be negligent any longer. Thus, we are determined to tackle this challenge through our European Green Deal.
Closing the event, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius said:
It has been very inspiring to see so many people interested in zero pollution and determined to work towards delivering healthier people and planet. Our task is now to use this energy and turn it into a lasting engagement to the benefit of a clean and healthy planet for all. The zero pollution ambition is not only a political or technological challenge. We need to mobilise creativity and ingenuity all across society, and in particular young people. This will be essential to succeed in a just transition where everybody is on board, and to create a Europe that’s fairer, and more equal.
The connections between health and environment were at the centre of this year’s agenda. Reducing environmental pollution goes hand in hand with living healthier lives. With 1 in 8 premature deaths in the EU linked to pollution, the event looked at how zero-pollution ambitions translate into revised ambient air quality laws, and how to align EU directives more closely with World Health Organisation guidelines. It explored ways to build cleaner, more ‘circular’ industrial plants, urban planning solutions to accommodate sustainable mobility, and ways to improve air quality in the Western Balkans.
On biodiversity and pollution, the message from this Green Week is very clear. Reducing pollution from nutrients, pesticides and plastics will be a prerequisite to achieve our biodiversity goals. The EU will take this message forcefully to the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP 15). At this meeting, world leaders are expected to agree on a new post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, and the EU is ready to lead efforts and work with like-minded partners to achieve an ambitious global agreement to halt biodiversity loss. There is a clear call to mobilise more existing communities if we are serious about addressing the three interacting crises – climate change, biodiversity and pollution - to enable transformative change to take place. CBD COP15 is our biggest chance and maybe our last chance to reverse the vicious circles we are in. The EU has proposed an ambitious set of targets, and will strive to convince other actors to make similar commitments.
Another priority has been sustainable production and consumption. Many discussions looked at how various economic sectors can contribute to the zero pollution ambition, from industrial production, to transport or the building sector with the lighthouse projects of the New European Bauhaus. Speakers also looked at reducing pollution from consumer products, e.g. through the actions under the chemicals strategy or the development of a sustainable product policy. All this taken together will help reduce the environmental footprint from production and consumption, including the footprint that the EU has globally.
Fighting for zero pollution is also a matter of social justice. The most vulnerable groups are hit the hardest, so children, people with medical conditions and disabilities, older people and those living in poorer socio-economic conditions are affected the worst. If we want a real change to happen in practice, we need to change the system. We need to send the right market signals, and find new economic incentives. We need “green” stimulus packages in the Member States. We need to see finance channelled to sustainable projects. That could include a better tax system, so no one pollutes for free. If we moved taxes away from labour towards pollution and resource use, we would lay the foundations of a more sustainable future. And finally, we need sustainable business models to become the norm, not the exception.
Highlights of the week included:
- Reducing single-use plastics: the European Commission provided guidance to facilitate a correct and harmonised application of the new rules on single-use plastics. Read more here.
- The latest Bathing Water report published by the European Environment Agency showed that bathing water quality in the EU remains high. In 2020, 83% of bathing sites in the EU are of excellent, zero pollution quality. We can also swim in some of our cities, e.g. in the River Danube in Vienna and Budapest, on the River Spree in Berlin, at numerous places in Amsterdam, on the River Daugava in Riga, in Copenhagen harbour and many other cities again. Read more here.
- The EU LIFE Awards recognised the most innovative, inspirational and effective LIFE projects in the fields of nature protection, environment and climate action. The recognised projects included a French project helping forest managers put climate change adaptation strategies in place, a Spanish project which used dried seagrass as effective and inexpensive thermal insulation in social housing, and a Slovak project that prevented birds from colliding with power lines by installing flight diverters. The public also voted for their favourite project in the Citizens’ Award, choosing TARTALIFE (Italy) which helped to reduce the numbers of sea turtles caught in fishing nets along 15 Italian coastal areas.
- Monitoring pollution: Green Week showed how Copernicus satellites can track air quality, CO2 concentrations, water quality and other sources of pollution on Earth.
- Paying for pollution: new perspectives on taxation, subsidies and market based instruments in the context of policy goals of resilience, sustainable recovery and zero pollution, to make sure nobody pollutes for free.
- Translating vision into action on the ground: the European Commission and the European Committee of the Regions launched a Stakeholder Platform to help implement the EU Zero Pollution Action Plan. Read more here.
- Cracking the zero-pollution code: after three days of intense work, 43 brilliant students participating in the Junior Achievement Hackathon 2021 revealed their innovative ideas to prevent pollution and help rebuild the balance of rivers, lakes and seas in Europe. The winning team from Cyprus developed a pen made from cigarettes buds – one of the top polluting single use products at our beaches, in particular in the Mediterranean.
Although #EUGreenWeek 2021 has ended, many Partner Events will continue over the coming days and weeks, including on World Environment Day. All the sessions will become available on the EU Green Week website shortly.
Under the motto “Reimagine. Recreate. Restore”, this year’s World Environment Day will mark the beginning of the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration.
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- Directorate-General for Environment