Editorial: Acid News celebrates 30 years!

Today it goes without saying that countries have to cooperate and take action in order to resolve transboundary environmental problems, but this was far from obvious for most countries only a few decades ago.

Let’s go back just forty years, to 1972, when the first ever global meeting on environmental matters, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, took place in Stockholm. Sweden, being the host country, presented a case study showing that air pollutants carried by winds from other countries were the main cause of freshwater acidification in Scandinavia.

The Swedish study aroused both attention and disbelief – additional research and studies were needed to convince big emitter countries that their emissions actually resulted in environmental damage in other countries hundreds and even thousands of kilometres away.

After several years of preparatory work and – sometimes intensive – discussions, in 1979 countries in Europe and North America eventually agreed and signed the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP), which now covers a wide range of air pollutants.

Some environmental groups became aware of the transboundary dimensions of the air pollution problems as early as the 1970s, and carried out international activities. More followed in the early 1980s, as air pollution was seen to kill not only fish but also forests.

To improve general awareness and initiate international coordination of environmental activities, a group of Swedish environmentalist associations organised an international acid rain conference in 1981. One outcome of this conference was the formation of the Swedish NGO Secretariat on Acid Rain in January 1982 – later renamed the Air Pollution and Climate Secretariat (AirClim). 1982 was also the year Acid News was born, which means it now celebrates its 30th birthday!

Since their peak around 1980, emissions of acidifying air pollutants in Europe have come down significantly (see article), and in some areas ecosystems are slowly recovering. Tougher emission controls on industry and road vehicles have resulted in less polluting power plants and cars. In addition, stricter environmental legislation has helped to speed up structural changes in the energy and transport sector and improved energy efficiency.

While the air we breathe has become a little bit cleaner, it is still unhealthy or even deadly. A study by the European Environment Agency has estimated that pollution by fine particulate matter (PM2.5) alone causes close to half a million premature deaths each year in the EU.

Next year the European Commission has promised to deliver a new Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution, to be accompanied by concrete legislative proposals and other initiatives to further cut air pollutant emissions (see article).

Practical application of new and improved emission control techniques must be part of the solution, but minimising the use of fossil fuels is key to resolving both climate change and air pollution as it cuts emissions of the main greenhouse gas CO2 as well as those of health-damaging sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, fine particulate matter and mercury.

A variety of measures could bring about simultaneous reductions of CO2 and traditional air pollutants, including energy efficiency, structural change (e.g. fuel switching from coal, diesel and petrol to renewables), and behavioural change (e.g. reducing car usage).

When elaborating the new Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution and setting new ambition levels for air pollution cuts for the next 10-20 years, the Commission must make sure to fully account for these interactions.

Not only will the implementation of tough climate policies help to achieve air quality targets. The significant co-benefits from air pollution reductions also help to motivate a much higher level of ambition for EU’s climate policy, as well as a higher share of domestic (i.e. within the EU) carbon dioxide reductions.

Christer Ågren

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