Year of air in review – EU must react to air pollution’s devastating cost to health

Almost a year ago, scientists, politicians and campaigners gathered in Brussels to hear Janez Potocnik, the EU’s environment commissioner, launch the Year of Air: a comprehensive review of the science on air pollution and the EU’s laws and policies to address it.

With only hours to go before the Year of Air’s finale, it seems like a good time to reflect on what has been an important year for air pollution and look forward to what 2014 might bring.

The health evidence

This year, the science on the harm caused by air pollution has reached a critical mass. It felt like every week there was a new study confirming the frightening health impacts of dirty air. So I’ll focus on the role played by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is the body that informs the EU’s air policy.

In January, a project led by the WHO announced its final report to the Commission on the latest evidence on (the snappily titled “REVIHAAP” project).  The report showed that current EU standards were totally inadequate, with pollution causing early deaths and hospital admissions at levels below EU limits, and even the WHO’s much more stringent guidelines. Then in October the WHO dropped another bombshell, confirming that air pollution is carcinogenic to humans and a leading cause of cancer deaths.

Ambient air quality limits

However, despite the overwhelming scientific case for tightening EU air quality standards, the Commission, faced with so many countries in breach of the current standards and some noisy lobbying from the likes of the UK, decided opening the current directive for revision was pointless and potentially risky.  Rather than getting tighter standards, it could actually result in a roll back of the current standards with more time extensions and loopholes.

So instead the Commission decided to focus on enforcing the current standards. In January it announced it was taking legal action against all 17 member states still breaking limits for PM10 (in force since 2005!) under a “fresh approach” to infringement cases.

However, by the end of the year, the fresh approach is looking more than a little stale. Not one of those 17 countries has been referred to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), or even faced the next stage in the legal procedure – the final written warning known as the reasoned opinion.

Fortunately, ClientEarth’s case against the UK for breaking nitrogen dioxide limits in 16 cities and regions will be heard by the CJEU in 2014. A strong ruling will spur member states into action and break the current impasse in the Commission’s infringement cases.

Today’s proposal

So if we aren’t going to get new air quality limits, what is today’s announcement all about? Well, the Commission sees cutting pollution at source as being the key to tackling the EU’s air quality crisis. So in addition to a new strategy document, we will see two new legislative proposals aimed at tackling emissions of air pollution.

The centrepiece will be a revised National Emission Ceilings Directive (the “NEC” directive for short). This caps each country’s total emissions of the major pollutants which harm human health and the environment (Currently these are: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) and ammonia. Today’s proposal will add fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and probably also methane). These limits apply to each country’s total annual tonnes of pollution from all sectors, so covers everything from road transport to agriculture, industry and shipping.

This is a golden opportunity to put the EU on the path to a cleaner, healthier future, while saving money and creating green jobs in the process. In 2010 alone, air pollution caused 420,000 early deaths in the EU, at a staggering cost of between €330 billion and €940 billion. Lost working days cost the EU economy €15 billion a year, with a further €4 billion spent on hospital admissions caused by air pollution.

The key will be ambitious, legally binding targets for all the big pollutants, to be achieved by 2025.

These details still need to be thrashed out between the commissioners when they meet this morning. My big worry is that they will cave in to industry lobbying and weaken the proposals or push back the target date for 2030. This would be a public health disaster – the longer we delay, the more people will die and the more money we will squander.

Let’s hope the Year of Air doesn’t turn out to be the year of hot air.

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3 thoughts on “Year of air in review – EU must react to air pollution’s devastating cost to health

  1. Graham Cliff

    In the UK today life expectancy is reduced by about 6 months by air pollution. Our population is about 63.7 million and average life expectancy is now about 85 years. Try this simple calculation – IF, on average, life expectancy is reduced by 6 months in 85 years then that means that 63.7 million x 6 months divided by 12 months divided by 85 years die annually, on average? What figure do YOU get? I get about 374,706 – how does my figure compare with the figure that YOU get?

  2. Alan Andrews

    Hi Graham, thanks for your interest – I’m not sure which figure you are referring to. We don’t get involved in making our own calculations any of them ourselves. The premature death figure we usually use is 29,000 premature deaths, which comes from the Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (http://comeap.org.uk/documents/reports/39-page/linking/51-the-mortality-effects-of-long-term-exposure-to-particulate-air-pollution-in-the-united-kingdom). I understand that this is a fairly conservative figure – I take it you think this is an underestimate?

  3. tony

    I like the idea of total emissions cap but how will that work!

    I also like the possible limits covering 2.5 and am keen to these dangerous particulates measured more widely, controlled to WHO recommended maximum levels.

    Thanks for all your hard work and for being bothered to do something.

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