Blog: Protecting even what we cannot see

For us up here in the Nordics, clean air is something worth fighting for. When I was the Norwegian minister for health and care services, I learnt some important lessons when I pushed through the ban on smoking in public places. I learnt that the vast majority of people value a cleaner environment, and that they’re willing to make some sacrifices in return for better air quality. Significant environmental improvements can be achieved over time if policy is based on knowledge, clear goals, and perseverance. I found the same to be true in a broader perspective when I went on to follow the successes of Nordic co-operation on air quality. Here, the lessons I learnt were confirmed.

Generalsekretærens Blogg

Dagfinn Høybråten, Secretary General 

Fifty years ago, acid rain was the eye-opener that pushed researchers and decision-makers to take action. Through Nordic co-operation, the Nordic countries funded research that put acid rain, its causes, and its consequences into context.

Activism became policy and legislation, the results of which soon became apparent. Today, sulphur emissions in Europe are almost 80 percent lower than in 1980, ecosystems are recovering, and fish have returned to previously extinct bodies of water.

Later, acid rain gave way to global warming on the international environmental agenda. As new research revealed the complexity of the problem of air quality, it also showed that not all solutions that are good for the environment are good for our health, and vice versa.

Diesel, which should have been a cost-effective way to reduce CO2 emissions and was therefore subsidised, has been shown to yield high levels of microparticles and nitrogen oxides that can cause respiratory complaints and heart disease. Some air pollutants also pose a risk of cancer. So what can we learn from this? Well, we need policies that are more knowledge-based, and we have to look at air policy from an overall perspective. 

The Nordic countries are strong advocates of a holistic perspective, of visualising the invisible, of weighing the pros against the cons, and of bearing in mind the knock-on effects of what is done locally, nationally, regionally, and globally. Although we’ve come a long way in improving our air quality up here in the Nordic Region, the emissions we produce end up in the Arctic, just like the majority of air pollution in our region comes from elsewhere.

So we should share what we know in the areas where we have knowledge. One of the ways the Nordic Council of Ministers has done this is to bring together Nordic, Russian, and Belarussian researchers to produce national data that can serve as a basis for decision-making in the target countries. The initiative of the Nordic prime ministers Nordic Solutions to Global Challenges also includes projects in which the sharing and exchange of knowledge about clean technologies support efforts to improve air quality and health.

This week, the sixth Saltsjöbaden workshop in Gothenburg will bring together international researchers, politicians, and officials in a bid to progress to the next stage of international efforts relating to improving air quality. After all, there’s no doubt that we have to look after even the things that we cannot see and build on what we’ve all learnt so far.