Lifting the haze: Why air pollution action doesn’t stop at cars

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

In addition to vehicle exhausts, fertiliser spreading are another serious cause of air pollution, writes Ugo Taddei. [Tonko Oosterink / Shutterstock]

As Germany faces a national lawsuit on air pollution, Ugo Taddei asks: should other countries worry?

Ugo Taddei is the head of Clean Air at ClientEarth, an environmental NGO.

It would be difficult to find anyone in Europe who is unaware of the air pollution issue we have on our hands.

The exhaust fumes from vehicles in cities – and the fine dust that sheds from brakes and tyres – have been at the forefront of national and international news for several years now.

Legal cases have been taken; studies have been published.

As far as the public is concerned, the culprit is clear – it is all to do with petrol and diesel vehicles, surely?

They are right – in part. In European cities, diesel vehicles are indeed the source of much of the dangerous nitrogen dioxide pollution we breathe in daily.

But why is it that levels of some types of pollution have stayed stubbornly high under lockdown?

Not just a local issue

Air pollution does not respect national boundaries.

Take, for example, the vast quantity of pollutant emissions from Europe’s intensive farming industry. Ammonia is one of the major pollution issues Europe faces and these emissions do not linger in one place.

The source of the eye-watering gas is in manure management and fertiliser spreading, but it sweeps far and wide, crossing continents – reacting with other chemicals along the way to create dangerous PM2.5 – tiny particles small enough to infiltrate the lung walls and impact virtually every organ in the human body.

This type of pollution is a major threat to human health and is estimated to be responsible for over 370,000 early deaths in the EU every year.

Tackling local sources of pollution, like road traffic, close to where people live and work, is an urgent matter. But we also need to bring PM2.5 down to safe levels in our cities and that means addressing emissions from agriculture and power generation.

The majority of people will be fully unaware that they are breathing PM2.5 caused by farms, factories and power plants hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

Are laws on air pollution working?

There are EU laws in place to regulate pollutants like ammonia. The EU’s main legal instrument to reduce overall emissions of air pollution was revamped last year.

The ‘NEC’ Directive (EU) 2016/2244 governs five key pollutants, setting annual limits on what each member state can emit each year, and binding national emissions reduction targets for 2020 and 2030. Countries must come up with national programmes that prove they will comply.

This bloc-wide approach is crucial given the transboundary nature of air pollution. But unfortunately, countries like Germany are far off track to meet legal requirements, projecting to miss them even a decade in advance. Germany itself is one of the top ammonia emitters in Europe.

As of the end of May, the German government is subject to legal action on that basis. Germany’s admission that it would not get illegal pollution down to EU-prescribed levels in time for 2030 – despite repeated court losses over air pollution – was the prompt for ClientEarth and Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) to take action.

The fight against air pollution does not stop at cities

Toxic air claims too many lives across Europe – and seriously compromises the quality of hundreds of thousands more.

Air pollution has been conclusively linked with multiple forms of cancer, with respiratory disorders, with premature births – and more recently, scientists have been questioning its effects on our attention span, our mental health and even suggesting it may contribute to dementia.

To get on top of this problem, governments are going to need to think bigger, and quickly. Because across the bloc, they are falling short.

In grappling with the pandemic, air pollution has become an unexpectedly major topic. We have seen city and country leaders vow that city-dwellers must not return to breathing noxious fumes as a day-to-day reality and measures are emerging all over the world to back that promise up.

But tackling national air pollution is bigger than citywide measures. We need actions at all levels and across all sectors. Country leaders need to see the whole picture – and currently, it is hazy.

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