The European approach to the global environment

To respond to the pressing need for environmental protection within its borders, the EU will also need to go beyond data collection and analysis and ensure that its commitment to examine the health impact of all economic and social policies is applied in practice. Given the differences in exposure and resulting inequalities in the burden of environmental diseases by country, targeted actions directed at reducing the environmental impact – particularly in eastern European countries still catching up in terms of economic development – should also be considered.

In addition, it is apparent that many issues encompass the whole of the greater European region and its near neighbours. The EU, through its Directorate-General for Health and Consumers, has developed a close partnership with the European Office of WHO to address regional concerns as exemplified by the WHO Protocol on Water and Health of 2005. Partnerships such as these need to be further expanded.

There are many lessons to be learnt by bringing together the health, environmental and sustainability agendas, and this process should not stop at European borders. Indeed, the impact of European health and environmental protection on global health is manifold. Recent human biomonitoring data show increased body concentrations of some accumulative substances, reflecting increased contamination of the environment. Pollution created in Europe impacts upon the global environment by adding to global warming and the release of pollutants into the air and seas. Within the EU, political positions on the environment and sustainability are clearer and more cohesive than with respect to global health. The position of the EU regarding the Kyoto Protocol is well articulated and has been starkly different to that, for example, of the US.

The issues are also better understood by the public and industry; there can be few major European corporations that do not post some form of environmental policy on their web site, but almost none have a policy regarding their health impact. While there are ongoing debates about the application of carbon trading, the fact that a financing mechanism has been introduced and accepted also provides lessons for the financing of global health as a global public good. The promotion of long-term measures for health, the environment and sustainable development will require fundamental changes in attitudes and behaviours. This will require awareness and action, not just at EU level, but also by national governments and healthcare systems, private sector industries and individuals as consumers and as global citizens.