More noise in the sustainability debate
27.06.2022 - Martin Röösli

Noise is an integral part of our everyday life. Yet, it is barely ever mentioned in the sustainability debate. Martin Röösli, environmental epidemiologist at Swiss TPH, explains why this urgently needs to change.

Hardly any other environmental pollutant affects our everyday life as much as noise. This is shown by complaints about noise to specialist bodies and the police, which frequently concern noise perceived as senseless, such as noise of drunks at night or of inconsiderate car drivers and motorcyclists. Permanent traffic noise, however, leads less frequently to complaints – yet, the willingness to pay to avoid such noise is surprisingly high. For every five decibels reduction in traffic noise, rental prices in Switzerland rise by one percent.

The value of a quiet home became evident during the COVID-19 lockdown. People stayed at home more during the lockdown, and complaints about noise increased accordingly, for instance in London by 50 % in the spring of 2020.

However, it is striking that noise is not taken into account in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations. The SDGs comprise 17 goals with 169 related targets. None of these goals mentions noise. By contrast, air pollution is rightly included in three goals, namely Good Health and Well-Being (SDG 3), Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11) and Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12). The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is responsible to implement the SDGs in Switzerland. But even in this 74-page strategy document, noise is not mentioned once.

Noise influences practically all SDGs

It is obvious, however, how relevant noise is in the context of most of SDGs: It is undisputed that noise increases the risk of stress-related conditions such as heart attacks, diabetes and mental illness (SDG 3, Good Health and Well-Being). Moreover, noise also impedes the cognitive development of children and leads to behavioural problems. As a result, noise compromises the goal of quality education (SDG 4). Regarding affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), there are many co-benefits but also certain trade-offs, since noise from wind turbines and heat pumps causes nuisances even at relatively low levels. Electric vehicles on the other hand are quieter than fossil fuel vehicles, which has positive effects above all at low speeds. Noisy workplaces can be a problem for decent work conditions (SDG 8) in extreme cases, whilst industry, innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9) are an important element in developing innovative solutions for noise problems. These include, for instance, low-noise tyres and road surfaces as well as lighter cars.

In view of the unequal impact of noise pollution and the additional costs of quiet housing, noise is a key element in achieving less inequality (SDG 10). Sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11) are less noisy if routes are shorter and suitable for pedestrians and bicycles. This in turn has a positive effect on health (SDG 3). Climate action (SDG 13) as well as measures to promote affordable and clean energy (SDG 7) often also have co-benefits in terms of noise pollution. Electric mobility reduces noise somewhat. Various energy saving measures, such as limiting motorised individual and air traffic, are likely to be even more effective. So far, little research has been done on the impact of noise on terrestrial ecosystems (SDG 15, Life On Land). The observation that birdsong changed in California during the COVID-19 lockdown is a small indicator of effects in this regard. The same applies, of course, to underwater noise (SDG 14, Life Below Water). That noise leads to stress, anger and aggression can disrupt peace and justice (SDG 16). Considering all these facts, I would like the issue of noise to be more prominent in global partnership (SDG 17) as well.

Looking for the causes

There are three hypotheses as to why noise, despite being highly relevant to the sustainability goals, attracts surprisingly little attention.

  1. Environmental sustainability is often understood as the intergenerational accumulation of pollutants. Noise, on the other hand, does not accumulate physically. This, however, ignores the fact that poor planning decisions can result in exposure to noise, which can occur over an extended period.
  2. Anyone who does not tangibly experience noise typically underestimates its effect on quality of life. Decision-makers usually have the resources to avoid noise and are not aware from their own experience how much noise can affect quality of life. Accordingly, noise is considered a nuisance but not a substantial problem and health risk.
  3. Noise research is marginal from a global perspective. For instance, scientific databases contain around twenty times fewer studies on the health effects of noise than on air pollutants. As such, noise hardly has a voice in scientific bodies and within scientific policy debates.

A missed opportunity

I consider the absence of noise in the sustainability debate a missed opportunity. On the one hand, many of the measures to achieve a sustainable society result in less noise. Keeping this additional benefit in mind – and incorporating it into cost-benefit calculations – makes many measures even more worthwhile than they already are. On the other hand, where there are conflicting goals, such as in the case of heat pumps and wind turbines, it is all the more important to bear these in mind and to minimise them through technological innovation from the outset – and not just when complaints and hence problems arise. Otherwise, these transformations will falter.

Nonetheless, I see a ray of hope. Switzerland’s Country Report to the United Nations from May 2022 refers to traffic noise as an indicator for monitoring in SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities). Noise may therefore soon be incorporated into the other SDGs and, above all, into strategy documents and action plans for achieving the Sustainability Development Goals.