Editorial: Protect people and nature from air pollution

Photo: Asim Bharwani CC BY-NC-ND

Since their peak around thirty years ago, emissions of air pollutants in Europe have come down significantly. Tougher emission standards for 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 cleaner, it is still unhealthy or even deadly. Current levels of air pollution are responsible for more than 400,000 premature deaths in the EU every year, as well as allergies and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases which result in extra medication, hospitalisations and millions of lost working days.

These health impacts carry enormous costs to society. In the year 2010 alone, health damage in the EU from air pollution was estimated to amount to between €330 and €940 billion. This means that even a pure economic cost-benefit approach motivates a significant stepping up of action to tackle air pollution, since the health benefits alone outweigh by far the additional costs for emissions control.

For example, the monetized health benefits of the Commission’s recent proposal for a new national emissions ceilings (NEC) directive are up to 42 times greater than the estimated emission abatement costs.

Moreover, it is not only people that suffer. Air pollution also damages nature and biodiversity, with the deposition of acidifying and eutrophying pollutants and the concentrations of ground-level ozone still exceeding the tolerance limits of sensitive ecosystems over millions of hectares in Europe.

Clean air and water, healthy forests and heathlands, and a rich flora and fauna are necessary for a high quality of life, and must not be overlooked by policy makers just because they are difficult to value in monetary terms.

The gravity of the current air pollution situation calls for an EU air quality strategy that establishes a very high level of ambition. It is certainly not acceptable that even after 2030 air pollution will still cause a quarter of a million of premature deaths among EU citizens, and that millions of hectares of valuable ecosystems will still be exposed to pollutant levels in excess of their critical loads, as would be the case under the ambition level of the Commission’s proposed new NEC directive.

Applying 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 carbon dioxide as well as those of health-damaging sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, fine particulate matter and mercury.

Improvements in energy efficiency, increased use of less- or non-polluting renewable sources of energy and behavioural change (e.g. reducing car usage and meat consumption) are examples of measures that will benefit both air quality and the climate.

Going for tougher climate and energy targets will help to achieve air quality targets, and the significant short-term co-benefits for health and nature from the resulting air pollution reductions should also help to motivate a much higher level of ambition for climate policy.


Christer Ågren

In this issue