Hundreds of thousands of Europeans will suffer a premature death in the next two decades as the result of governments’ failure to act on air pollution, Europe’s environmental watchdog has warned.
In 2011, the latest year for which figures have been reliably collated, more than 400,000 are estimated to have died prematurely as a result of breathing toxic fumes, despite recent improvements in some countries.
The UK has been one of the worst offenders, with government figures showing that European Union regulations on air quality will not be met in cities including London, Birmingham and Leeds until 2030.
Europe is also faring badly on other environmental indicators, including the loss of biodiversity to intensive farming and urbanisation, and the poor state of many inland freshwater systems, according to the State of the Environment report for 2015, published by the European Environment Agency on Tuesday (3 March).
There have been some successes: coastal water pollution has been cleared up in many regions in the last two decades, as untreated sewage is no longer allowed to foul bathing beaches, and greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced overall.
But the EEA warned that although on areas such as industrial pollution, air pollution and waste management the EU was showing good progress, the outlook for two decades from now was increasingly grim on all environmental fronts.
The agency rated key environmental indicators on a “traffic lights” system, rating them red, amber or green for how well they are being dealt with currently, and how that is likely to change in the next 20 years as current and prospective policies take a longer term effect. None of the 20 key indicators were rated as “green” in its 20 year-plus forecast.
In its five-yearly report, the EEA also urged member state governments to take a more “joined-up” view of environmental issues. The study identified as a key problem the lack of coordination of regulation intended to address different aspects of environmental damage, such as water systems and biodiversity.
This can sometimes lead to trade-offs between good and bad effects. For instance, for more than a decade EU member states have tended to encourage the rise of diesel vehicles, with favourable tax regimes and pricing structures.
This has been one factor in bringing down greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels used for road transport, as diesel engines are more fuel-efficient than their petrol counterparts. But it has had an unintended consequence in the form of greater air pollution, because diesel engines spew out more particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide than petrol-driven cars, giving rise to breathing difficulties in vulnerable people, such as children and older citizens.
Hans Bruyninckx, executive director of the EEA, called for a “systemic” approach to protecting Europe’s environment. “It is not enough to look at these issues in isolation,” he told the Guardian. “They are interconnected and the way we study them and measure them and deal with them must be interconnected too.”
Although member states are currently doing well on bringing down greenhouse gas emissions, this will be a problem in 20 years’ time, the report found. Ecosystems across the continent are in dire straits, with terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity rated as “red” based on current trends, and in the outlook for two decades hence. Land use and the health of the soil receive a similar “red” warning, as does the impact that climate change is likely to have on ecosystems.
Bruyninckx said, “Our analysis shows that European policies have successfully tackled many environmental challenges over the years. But it also shows that we continue to harm the natural systems that sustain our prosperity. While living within planetary limits is an immense challenge, there are huge benefits in responding to it.
“Fully using Europe’s capacity to innovate could make us truly sustainable and put us at the frontier of science and technology, creating new industries and a healthier society.”