Speech - Keynote address at the Eighth Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference
Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe
9 June 2016, Batumi, Georgia
Honourable ministers, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for the opportunity to address the Eighth Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference. Thanks in particular to the Government of Georgia for its outstanding and warm hospitality, and to the UNECE that worked with Member States and partners in preparing this Conference. Your efforts have made this a very successful event!
Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the first time that the Environment for Europe conferences have acknowledged the importance of air pollution; in 1991, in Dobris, the first State of the Environment report recognized air pollution as a threat to health and the environment.
Over the following 25 years, air pollution has achieved the highest prominence on the global political agenda. We know today that air pollution is the biggest single environmental risk to health, responsible for the premature deaths of 7 million people every year globally – 600 000 of those in the WHO European Region – from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and cancer. As we focus our efforts on reducing the global burden of noncommunicable diseases, we cannot ignore this!
Air pollution causes an enormous burden on health, the environment, national economies and the well-being of our people. It disproportionally affects the least affluent areas of the Region and the most vulnerable populations, with dramatic societal and economic impacts. Last year, the WHO Regional Office for Europe and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that the economic cost of deaths and diseases from air pollution in the Region amounts to 1.6 trillion US dollars – an equivalent of one tenth of the gross domestic product of the entire European Union in 2013!
Over the past three decades, we have learned that any reduction in air pollution has direct, measurable and significant health benefits. We have also learned that effective interventions do make a difference in extending length and quality of life for people affected by poor air quality.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development gives us an inspiring, powerful and unifying framework to mobilize the different sectors and stakeholders whose participation is needed to take effective action on air pollution. Scaling up and accelerating the complex interventions in energy production, transport and other sectors will also help us to meet the Sustainable Development Goals to 'Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages', to 'Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all', to 'Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts', and to 'Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable'.
In the WHO European Region, Health 2020, the European policy for health and well-being, provides the strategic framework for the health sector to engage with other sectors and support actions across all levels of government and society to significantly improve the health and well-being of populations.
Health is a political choice. Public health is a responsibility of the whole of society and the whole of government in particular. Governments have the responsibility to provide safe and healthy environments for people to live in. Public health interventions promoting and addressing the behaviour of individuals are not enough in this case. Systemic, large-scale policy and technology interventions that will modify ways of producing and consuming energy, goods and services are desperately needed to achieve the desired sustainable development objectives in the future.
Making progress in effectively tackling air pollution requires action on different fronts.
Firstly, as political leaders, we need to fully implement the commitments that already exist, globally and regionally. Let me briefly mention some of them.
- Since 1979, the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, with its Protocols, is the key legally binding instrument whose ratification and implementation need to be promoted across the entire Region. WHO is proud of its nearly 20 years of collaboration with the Convention in the role of Chair of its Joint Task Force on the Health Aspects of Air Pollution.
- The Parma Declaration on Environment and Health sets a commitment to reduce exposure to air pollution, in line with the WHO air quality guidelines.
- The UN Environment Assembly resolution on strengthened action for air quality encourages governments to set standards and policies across multiple sectors.
- The first-ever resolution on air pollution and health, adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2015, is a new and important policy tool for stronger engagement and mobilization of the health sector globally. Two weeks ago, the Assembly also welcomed an implementation roadmap, which sets out a path to be followed by the health sector and a mandate to act in partnership with other sectors and across all levels of government.
Secondly, we need to make the best use of the latest evidence and the enhanced data and tools collected and provided by the environment and health sectors.
For example, the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health is leading the project of updating the WHO air quality guidelines in collaboration with experts across the globe.
Finally, we need to fully capitalize on the synergy and coherence provided by relevant processes, and on the partnerships and collaborations that these enable.
The collaboration between the Environment for Europe and the European Environment and Health processes is an important example of enhanced coordination and policy coherence at the Regional level. Since 2010, this has been facilitated by the direct involvement of the UNECE and WHO Regional governing bodies.
Importantly, this "political thread" links the outcome of the Batumi Conference to the preparation of the Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health that will take place in 2017, which also identified air pollution as one of the major priorities to be addressed by the new agenda for environment and health in Europe.
I wish to congratulate the Member States that have already submitted their voluntary, concrete commitments under the Batumi Action for Cleaner Air. I look very forward to their guidance on how the forthcoming Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health can give these commitments further impetus and bolster further action. Together, we can reduce air pollution and improve health in Europe for all.
Thank you for your attention.