Why do some countries block action on air pollution rather than save lives?

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

Air quality in Paris is greatly affected by farming emissions outside the city. [Falcon Photography/Flickr]

Air pollution causes hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year and costs up to 9% of EU GDP. Stalling on improving air quality is both dangerous and economically foolish, writes Louise Duprez.

Louise Duprez is senior policy officer for air quality at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Air pollution is a major problem in the EU. In an average European city, nine out of ten people breathe in toxic air that exceeds pollution concentration levels recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This results in around 400,000 premature deaths each year in the EU – ten times more than road traffic accidents – as well as diseases such as asthma, allergies, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and lung cancer. The health costs due to air pollution including extra medication, hospitalisations and sick leave are estimated at €330-940 billion per year, or 3-9% of the EU’s GDP. On top of this comes damage to vegetation and ecosystems.

Air pollution has an unfortunate habit of not respecting borders and this is what makes EU action so relevant in addressing this problem. Cities can ban cars from their centres, adopt congestion charges or improve their bus fleets, but they cannot control pollution coming from factories or farms located tens of kilometres away, or pollution coming from neighbouring countries. During the acute Paris smog episode of March 2014, 60% of the dangerous fine particles in the air came from manure spreading outside the French capital – ammonia emissions turn into fine particles that are harmful to health.

This is why the European Commission has proposed to limit the amounts of harmful pollutants each EU country is allowed to emit by 2030. After two years of discussions, the European Parliament and EU member states are now finalising an agreement that could save tens of thousands of lives each year.

But the governments of several large countries including the UK, France, Poland and Italy are fighting tooth and nail to lower their national targets, in particular the proposed ammonia caps, and to entirely scrap methane targets. Behind this push are national farming organisations, which fear that air pollution limits could throw a spanner in the works of plans to increase pork and dairy production.

This would be dangerous for people’s health, and economically foolish.

There is already a problem of oversupply in the pork and dairy sectors, as the current rock-bottom prices show, and allowing production to increase would be sheer folly. Instead of giving in to demands from certain farming organisations for more public subsidies and support schemes to compensate for these low prices, production should be reduced in line with demand and quality over quantity prioritised. Secondly and more importantly, the extra ammonia emissions national governments are pushing for would damage the health and quality of life of citizens, including farmers and their families, and lead to around 16,000 extra deaths annually, according to Commission figures. On the other hand, if adopted and implemented, the Commission proposal would save €40 billion each year in health costs.

Finally, since 90% of total ammonia emissions are emitted by only 5% of all farms (the most intensive ones), the limits proposed by the Commission could be met easily by focusing at national level on a few very large installations and by exempting smaller ones. It is simply a myth that all farmers would be affected by tighter air pollution caps.

All member states, including the UK, France, Italy and Poland, have much to gain from an ambitious air quality policy: reduced health bills, longer and healthier lives and a richer natural environment. This has been understood by the European Commission, by the Parliament and by many cities all over Europe. The sooner national governments also realise this and assume their responsibility, the sooner all Europeans will reap the benefits of cleaner air.

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