This week in Brussels, I watched as MEPs voted for faster and deeper cuts to harmful air pollution, a vote which could save hundreds of thousands of lives over the coming years.
The European Parliament’s Environment Committee was voting on a draft law, an update of the National Emissions Ceilings Directive, which would set national targets for emissions of six pollutants.
The proposal aims to improve air quality across Europe. If successful it could bring the number of people dying early from air pollution across the continent to half of 2012’s sobering total of 420,000.
However, a coalition of socialist, liberal and green MEPs thought the proposals didn’t go far enough and so voted through a series of amendments to beef up the legislation. Crucially, they voted to make pollution targets for 2025 binding, rather than voluntary. This will force national governments to take action five years earlier than they would have had to.
This is a big step forward in the fight for clean air, but by no means the end of the story. The proposal will now go to a vote by the full European Parliament, probably in October. Here it will meet fierce opposition from the agriculture lobby, which is opposed to stricter controls on farm emissions.
In the UK, news of the vote was overshadowed by the release of startling figures by the Mayor of London, revealing that nearly 10,000 Londoners died early from air pollution in 2010. This is more than doubling previous estimates.
These figures show why ClientEarth is fighting for the right to clean air in Brussels and London. Those 9,400 people who died early were breathing a harmful cocktail of diesel exhaust fumes known as nitrogen dioxide, or “”, and microscopic soot particles, known as “PM2.5”.
NO2 is largely a home-grown pollutant – the result of our reliance on dirty diesel to fuel our buses, taxis and, increasingly, cars. Our legal victory in April led to the Supreme Court ordering the government to come up with a plan to meet legal limits for NO2.
The new plans, due to be published for public consultation in September, will need to drastically cut pollution from all diesel vehicles in towns and cities throughout the UK, not just London.
Air pollution: A cross-border problem
However, air pollution does not respect national borders. This is especially true of the tiny particles, which can be blown thousands of miles by the wind before landing in our local air and eventually lodging deep in our lungs. That is why our government also needs to work with our neighbours to cut pollution across Europe.
Despite this, the UK government is rumoured to be leading the fight against the new laws.
If that is true, it is staggering. It would mean that in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, growing public alarm and a humiliating court defeat, the penny still hasn’t dropped with the UK government.
The next vote in Europe is crucial. MEPs have an incredible opportunity to protect people’s health. They must resist pressure from those who would put special interests above the lives of European citizens.