Air quality at a crossroads

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

Nearly 9,500 people die each year in London because of air pollution. [Matt Buck/Flickr]

Improving the EU’s poor air quality requires stricter regulation and significant investment. But the long term health benefits must outweigh financial concerns, argues Bert Brunekreef.

Bert Brunekreef is the Chairman of the Environment & Health Committee, European Respiratory Society.

Air quality in much of Europe is poor. More than 400,000 deaths each year are attributed to the inhalation of fine particles in the air. Other pollutants, such as ozone and nitrogen dioxide add further to the burden of disease. The Air Quality Guidelines set by the World Health Organisation are exceeded almost everywhere in Europe.

To tackle this problem, polluting emissions must go down – not just direct emissions of particles and noxious gases but also emissions of substances that react in the atmosphere to create harmful secondary particles and ozone. The European Union has proposed a new set of so-called National Emission Ceilings – limits to what each member state can discharge into the atmosphere.

In a few weeks, the European Parliament will be holding a plenary vote on the proposed National Emission Ceiling Directive. Although the proposal is not very ambitious in the short term, long term targets for 2025 and 2030 are more stringent to help ensure that Europe’s air will stop being the cause of so many preventable deaths. Detailed impact assessments have shown that the health benefits of reducing air pollution are more than worth it, even if initial compliance requirements will be a challenge to industry.

Unfortunately, the proposal is being attacked from various sides. A recent example that shows the lack of cooperation to reduce emissions levels is the Volkswagen emissions-altering software scandal. It has rightfully outraged many who are working towards clean air in Europe and across the globe. What this scandal forcefully illustrates is the need for independent real-world emissions testing. Assessments of air pollution impacts on health and ecosystems should be based on real-world emission data, not on values obtained in laboratory settings, which have become more and more remote from the real world over recent years.

This affair has wider ramifications because the EU’s new National Emission Ceilings Directive covers emissions from all sectors, so not only transport, but also industry, energy production, heating and agriculture.

In the agriculture sector in Europe, there is also a history of air pollution concentration not decreasing in line with reported emissions reductions. Ammonia, used and produced by the growing of crops and the rearing of animals for food, contributes significantly to the formation of secondary inorganic aerosols, which make up a large part of PM2.5 (fine particles in the air we breathe which can penetrate into the airways and lungs). Current scientific evidence considers the major PM2.5 components to be equally hazardous; therefore, the contribution of ammonia emissions to adverse health effects of PM2.5 is likely to be large.

To tackle the problem, taking action on ammonia emissions must be part of the solution. However, just last year, a significant gap was seen in the Netherlands between a reported strong downward trend in ammonia emissions and actual ammonia concentrations which showed no signs of change. Without significant ammonia reductions, the effects of reducing nitrogen and sulphur oxides on secondary particle formation will also become less effective.

Air pollution is a problem we’re all causing together, and one we’re all suffering from. This is not something that can be dealt with on a local or even national level: air pollution has no borders. It’s also something that cannot be dealt with by just one sector, be it transportation, space heating, energy production, industry or agriculture. Emissions from all sectors mix and react to produce the pollutants that today are causing so much harm in Europe. All sectors must therefore contribute to the solution, and policymakers should ensure that we’re all shouldering the burden together. The potential benefits are huge. The longer we take to make tough decisions, the bigger the challenge we’ll face in the future.