What to do?

       Photo: dmnkhhn CC BY-NC-SA

There is good potential for reducing emissions of most air pollutants to levels that nature and people can tolerate, without making major economic or material sacrifices.

Emissions of the major air pollutants are closely linked with our use of energy. They can effectively be reduced in two ways: either through technical measures, such as flue-gas treatment at a coal-fired power plant, or through measures that change the system, such as reducing energy use so that the coal-fired power plant is no longer needed.

The technology approach and system change approach are not mutually exclusive - in fact it can be difficult to separate them. But system change will often take a long time, while technical change can give quick results. And even after the energy system has undergone major change, emission control technology will still be important to keep emissions of many pollutants at a low level.

Certain air pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, cannot currently be removed at reasonable cost. Reducing these emissions will require system change that will mean using less fossil fuels. This itself is something of a key issue, since it would reduce emissions of many other air pollutants at the same time. For example, most emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides arise from the burning of fossil fuels, as do a large part of the emissions of fine particles (PM), volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, etc.

More from less

It is often cheaper, and above all more environmentally friendly, to use energy more efficiently than it is to build new power stations. Using energy more efficiently is purely to the good, since it means getting more useful work out of the same amount of energy. By taking measures to reduce the current wastage we can considerably reduce energy use, and hence air pollution.

According to the European Commission there is great potential for improving the efficiency of energy use within the EU - it has been estimated that around one-fifth could be saved at no additional cost, if the right incentives are used.

       Photo: N A I T CC BY-ND

Other energy sources

Major environmental gains can be made by switching from coal and oil to natural gas or, even better, to renewable energy sources. Sulphur emissions would virtually cease, and emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulates could be drastically reduced.

We need to make use of just one ten-thousandth of the incident solar radiation to meet the world's entire energy requirements. For example, the total current global consumption of electricity could be provided by solar panels covering twelve per cent of the area of the Sahara.

The amount of solar energy stored by green plants through photosynthesis is ten times greater than the total domestic energy consumption worldwide, and we currently only use one per cent of the solar energy that is captured by photosynthesis.

Emission control technology

Combustion plants and most types of vehicles can be equipped with emission control technology that can remove 95 per cent or more of the acidifying and health-damaging emissions.

       Photo: Duke Energy CC BY-NC-ND

It is profitable

Reducing emissions of air pollutants simply by employing the best available techniques throughout Europe is neither the best nor the cheapest way of reducing emissions. Yet it would still be profitable.

The annual cost of the 1999 Gothenburg protocol under the Convention on Long-range Air Pollution is estimated at 2.8 billion euros for the year 2010.

But the returns, in the form of improved health and reduced corrosion to buildings, would by that same year amount to 12.8 billion euros. Added to this is a host of benefits that do not carry any price tag. These include reducing the problem of acidification of the ecosystems, and reducing the problem of eutrophication all over Europe.

Conclusion: Despite overestimating the costs and underestimating the benefits, it is apparently still profitable to take strong measures against emissions of air pollutants. It would be expensive to take such measures, but even more expensive not to.

A study by EEB, T&E and AirClim - "Getting more for less" - showed that it is beneficial to simultaneously reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases and acidifying and health-damaging air pollutants. By using an alternative low-CO2 energy scenario as the basis for the cost calculation, the estimated annual costs for achieving the interim environmental quality targets of the EU:s 2001 national emission ceilings (NECs) directive could be reduced by nearly two thirds.

How can it be done?

How the changes should be achieved is a political question. Apart from drawing up legislation that sets maximum permissible emissions from various sources, the politicians could agree to financial incentives, such as taxing air pollution, which would make it profitable for companies and individuals to act more environmentally friendly.

>> Further reading

Reducing emissions. Chapter 8 in the secretariat's book Air and the Environment (2004). Describes possible measures, and also what is needed to bring about changes.

Solar power from Sahara for fossil-free Europe, Briefing, 2011.

Renewable energy can power the world by 2030, Briefing, 2010.

Supergrid paves the way for wind power expansion, Briefing, 2010.

Sustainable Energy Scenarios in Sweden. Briefing, 2009.

Renewable energy in the European Union. Fact sheet from the secretariat, September 2005.

Getting more for less. Study by AirClim, 2000.