Editorial: The year of air

Photo: flickr.com/cindy47452/CC BY-NC-SA

We are now approaching the end of 2013, the year declared by environment commissioner Janez Potočnik as the year of air and the year when the European Commission is to present its new clean air strategy.

More than 95 per cent of EU’s urban citizens are exposed to harmful levels of PM2.5 and ozone, and commissioner Potočnik recently confirmed that air pollution is the number one environmental cause of death in the EU, with over 400 000 premature deaths in 2010 - more than ten times the annual deaths from traffic accidents. For that same year, the external costs of health damage due to air pollution was estimated to amount to between €330-940 billion.

On top of these huge health impacts comes the damage to ecosystems and biodiversity. Deposition of airborne nitrogen compounds in the EU exceeds the critical loads – the limits of nature’s tolerance – for eutrophication of vulnerable ecosystems over a total area of more than one million square kilometres. The critical loads for acidification are also exceeded over vast areas of vulnerable forest and freshwater ecosystems, and elevated levels of ozone harm crops and natural vegetation, including forest trees.

For air pollution, the EU’s long-term objective is “to achieve levels of air quality that do not give rise to significant negative impacts on risks to human health and the environment.” For health, this implies achievement of WHO health guidelines, and for the environment it means that the critical loads and levels should not be exceeded.

These objectives are not new, they have in fact been in place since the 5th Environmental Action Programme (EAP) was adopted in 1992, and were again confirmed in the 7th EAP, adopted on 20 November this year.

The Commission has promised to deliver a new Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution, to be accompanied by concrete legislative proposals, including a revised National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) directive, and other initiatives to further cut air pollutant emissions.

Now the expectation is for the Commission to come up with a strategy that aims to achieve these fundamental objectives, and for the member states and European Parliament to give their full support to such a strategy.

Environmental, health and citizens’ organisations from across the EU have agreed three main priorities for which they would like legislative action in the Commission’s 2013 air package:

  • Ambitious emission reduction commitments for 2020 and 2025 in the revised NEC directive that should lead to the achievement of the EU’s long-term objectives for air quality by 2030 at the latest
  • Specific legislation to cut emissions from all major source sectors, especially domestic heating, agriculture, shipping, small- and medium-scale industrial combustion, road vehicles, non-road mobile machinery and solvent use.
  • Implementation, enforcement and strengthening of current EU air quality standards in light of the most recent WHO recommendations and health research results.

There are close and important links between air pollution policies and climate policies, mainly in the energy and transport sectors. Phasing out fossil fuel use by improvements in energy efficiency, increased use of less- or non-polluting renewable sources of energy and behavioural change (e.g. reducing car usage) will result in significantly lower emissions of key air pollutants, as well as cutting emissions of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

Raising the ambition levels for both climate policy and air pollution policy will benefit the economy, citizens and the environment, and create a better society for us all.

Christer Ågren

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