The European Union has approved various measures to combat climate change but they are not enough, especially to protect the most vulnerable groups.
People with fewer resources, the elderly and children are more exposed to environmental hazards such as air and noise pollution and extreme temperatures, especially in eastern and southern Europe.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) warns that, despite the success of European policies in recent years to improve our quality of life and protect the environment, specific plans and actions are needed to ensure that all Europeans, regardless of their age, income or educational level, are adequately protected against environmental hazards.
The environmental threats and their consequences on human health reflect the differences in the levels of income, unemployment and education in Europe as a whole. Regional inequalities persist and the link between social and environmental policies should improve, as well as should local action to achieve an “environmental justice”.
Air and noise pollution
The regions of Eastern Europe (including Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) and the regions of southern Europe (including Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece), with lower income levels, educational level and unemployment rates above European averages, are more exposed to air pollutants.
On the other hand, large cities of the richest regions, on average, have higher levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), due to the high concentration of traffic and industrial activities. And even more, in these regions the poorest communities tend to be exposed to higher local levels of NO2.
Exposure to noise is much more localized than exposure to air pollution. A link between noise levels in cities and a lower level of household income is likely, indicating that cities with poorer populations have higher noise levels.
Southern and southeastern Europe is more affected by higher temperatures. The lower level of income and education, more unemployment and a higher rate of elderly people in regions of countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain can reduce the ability of people to respond to and avoid heat and, therefore, increase health problems.
At the other extreme, in the colder regions or during the winter, many people cannot heat their homes properly due to the poor quality of housing and the price of energy, resulting in diseases and deaths related to exposure at low temperatures.
EU member states have implemented various policies to improve adaptation to climate change, with an emphasis on addressing social and economic inequalities. Some regional and municipal authorities already act proactively to reduce the impact of environmental risks on the most vulnerable people:
- Improved traffic management on roads and urban centers (eg, low emission areas of both gas and noise).
- Prohibition of certain fuels for household heating, such as coal, to improve air quality in low-income areas, combined with subsidies to provide cleaner heating systems.
- To protect children from the noise of airplanes and roads, acoustic barriers and protective structures are placed in outdoor play areas.
- Local action plans (with the collaboration of community initiatives and volunteering) to respond immediately to the elderly and other vulnerable groups during heat or cold waves.
- More green spaces in urban centers that help reduce temperature and improve the health and quality of life of residents.