Green Week, the European Commission’s annual four-day environmental conference, has come and gone for another year, and the most remarkable thing is that nobody noticed. Unlike last year (where the Risk-Monger called for this wasteful circus to be discontinued), this year I felt some sympathy for the event, left shrunken and sadly isolated, slowly rotting on the carcass of indifference. Because this year, the theme, air quality, is a serious issue that must be addressed. But because air pollution is something most often invisible, there is little motivation to act and no (monetary) incentive for environmental NGOs to bother raising awareness.
Of the 38 sessions, there was no involvement from the main environmental NGOs with the presence of only two medium-sized groups from the many NGOs receiving money from DG Environment to engage in dialogue with other stakeholders (ie, to participate in events like Green Week). No involvement from WWF, Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace – no one to hold the flame under the declarations of officials or industries to ensure that they are converted into actions. Their wholesale absence is no longer surprising – taking money from the public purse is part of an environmental activist’s expectation, but putting them in a room where they would have to listen to people they disagree with is considered cruel and inhumane. Stakeholder dialogue is dead (so perhaps the European Commission should stop throwing money at them!)
These campaigners are not interested in air pollution because the majority of people feel there have been improvements. On air quality issues, there is no real opportunity for NGO fundraising – people cannot be made afraid by something they cannot see or in most cases feel and the evident conclusion of any air quality campaign would be to make cars more ecologically accountable (and no one will contribute to an NGO campaigning to get the cars off the road).
“We are all hypocrites”, a frustrated Janez Potočnik, Commissioner for DG Environment, told the Green Week audience during the opening event, adding that “we are only concerned about the environment when it directly affects human well-being”. The Commissioner then had to make the effort to show how poor air quality has an enormous effect on health and the economy. Too bad nobody from WWF or Friends of the Earth bothered to show up to hear that indictment of their selective campaigning.
“Please lobby us!!!” cried a bemused MEP, Satu Hassi, to the audience (also at the opening event). She found herself begging NGOs and those who care about environmental health to be involved in the process. The failure of environmental NGOs to participate in air quality regulatory debates meant the MEPs were alone in fighting industry for better health for Europeans. Still, nobody came (Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were too busy running campaigns against “lobbyists”).
They should not be ignoring this issue. Air pollution is a major killer in Europe (to humans and the environment) – no longer from second-hand smoke, but from transportation pollution, indoor air issues (only one session on indoor air this year) and traditional farming techniques.
- Exhaust fumes from automobiles kill far more annually (in DALYs) than car accidents do (although I question Hassi’s hyperbolic estimate of ten times more). By the way, have you ever wondered why the exhaust pipe on a car is designed to be right at the baby carriage level rather than in the more visible location on top of the car?
- Poor house construction quality can leave homes in uninhabitable conditions for asthma sufferers (with high humidity, mould and mites). Lost working time due to illness has a large effect on EU productivity rates, not to mention the reduced quality of life.
- The saddest realisation is not how little NGOs are concerned about these issues, but rather, how they are even exacerbating them. Greenpeace is running a campaign against synthetic fertilisers, without the least concern that their stress on relying on traditional fertilisers will lead to an enormous increase in eutrophication. Hypocrites indeed!
I used Green Week as an opportunity to take my on-going EU Lobbying class on a tour to show them how the EU stakeholder dialogue process works. I found myself apologising to the students for the poor performance of the actors and low interest. As for the venue, I also apologised for that although to be honest, the location fit the ideals of the hard-core environmentalists (were they ever to show up). The Egg conference centre is a refurbished post-industrial site, in a very poor part of Brussels serving far less food than the number of participants attending. And for the air quality hypocrites, there was ample parking for their big cars.