The recent 2016 EU Air Quality Report nicely shows that air quality in Europe has been improving since 2000 across nearly all indicators. Whenever I can present a graph like the one on the right, I am happy. It makes me smile. I feel things are improving and my kids have a chance at a better future. With all the recent terrible events out there, the rise of right-wing attitudes and the many wars that are still being fought, these are finally good news.
BUT, like oh so many times, there is a catch. In fact, there are two catches.
The first one is that these levels of air pollution, even though they are declining, are still responsible for a significant number of deaths across Europe. According to the report, PM2.5 levels are responsible for 436,000 premature deaths annually in EU-28, NO2 for 68,000, O3 for 16,000, and these numbers apparently do not show significant decreases during the past years. As the WHO writes in another report, “in the European Union, the smallest particulate matter alone (PM2.5) causes an estimated loss of statistical life expectancy of 8.6 months for the average European.” This means that a significant number of EU inhabitants are strongly affected by air pollution – and here we are talking only about the number of deaths! The number of lost working hours, of reductions in efficiency due to health problems are obviously not accounted. And, moving away from purely economic arguments, the psychological impacts of an unnecessary worsening of one’s health is also worrying. Whenever I go to Paris during the summer, after two days my lungs start to hurt from the pollution. How do people feel that live there for their whole lives? This should induce a large psychological burden. Plus, with all this urbanisation still going on in Europe, we see larger shares of EU population being burdened by these health problems. So the question obviously is, even though EU air quality legislation seems to show that within Europe the air quality regulation targets tend to be adhered to, should we accept these targets?
And here comes the second catch. In fact, the EU has its own air quality standards. And they differ substantially from those adviced as guidelines by the WHO. This is despite the fact that European policy makers want to make us believe otherwise. In fact, in their report, while they do acknowledge that their air quality regulation is laxer than the WHO guidelines, they still claim that “This European policy is in line with other international instruments and conventions.” I find this claim peculiar.
But most worringly, if we really compare the EU air quality regulation with the guidelines by the WHO, we see that there are substantial differences. More specifically, while the EU regulation seems to suggest that only a very small percent of the EU urban population lives in areas exceeding the EU air quality regulation, the picture looks much different once we compare this to the WHO guidelines. Indeed, according to the WHO guidelines a significant, sometimes the largest part of the EU urban population, breathes levels of air pollution that exceed WHO guidelines, and this holds across nearly all air pollution indicators.
And now the obvious question is as to who is right? Or in other words, what determines these differences between EU air quality regulation and WHO guidelines. Why do they differ so substantially? A recent report from the EU Directorate-General for internal policies, entitled “EU air quality policy and WHO Guideline values for health” gives some ideas and answers.
Firstly, the report suggests some worrying news: “The studies on which the [WHO] guidelines are based show that exposure to air pollutants (esp. PM 2.5 , NO 2 and O 3 ) can be linked to significant impacts on human health.” Furthermore, “[r]ecent studies have corroborated this result and identified impacts on human health even below the current guideline levels.” This suggests that the WHO guidelines may even be too lax. Strangely, the EU air quality regulation is even weaker than the WHO guidelines while at the same time the EU claims to be a front runner in environmental policy. What is going on?
The answer is given here:
“The World Health Organisation develops guidelines for ambient levels of air pollutants which are evidence based and rely on the most recent scientific
knowledge. These guidelines are based only on health considerations, whereas for
European air quality regulatory standards further aspects have to be taken into
account… WHO air quality guideline values have a different role than European air quality regulatory standards as laid down in the Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD) and the 4 th Daughter Directive (4DD). WHO guidelines are based solely on scientific conclusions about public health aspects of air pollution; however, they do not consider the technical feasibility or the economic (such as cost benefit analysis), political and social aspects of the achievement of these levels. The WHO AQG levels can thus be considered as a recommendation.”
The question thus is, would it be possible to attain the WHO guidelines, i.e. to shift levels of pollution in Europe to a level that is, according to the WHO, safe. For this the EU developed several policy scenarios. The most ambitious of these (the “Maximum Control Effort” scenario), which requires decarbonisation, air pollution control measures and partly a hypothetical behavioural change, technical measures and in addition structural changes in the energy, transport and agriculture sectors, could reduce PM2.5 concentrations below the WHO guidelines by 2050.
But apparently we are not on the way to implement this Maximum Control Effort scenario. One of the main reasons seems to be that member states were too lax in implementing the already weaker EU regulations, higher than projected traffic volumes, delays in implementation of emission regulations, overestimation of emission reductions from planned measures and taxation (especially in Luxembourg fuel taxes favour the dirty diesel cars). Efforts are thus far below this scenario, and thus what is being done or what can be done?
The following estimates are laid out in the report:
The most cost-effective scenario with a view to a 70 % gap-closure (i.e. achieving
70 % of the effects on health of the Maximum Technically Feasible Reduction
scenario), as agreed by the Commission for 2025, achieves a 67 % gap closure
between the Current Legislation Scenario and the Maximum Technically Feasible
Reduction scenario in 2030.
The pollution control costs of EUR 3.3 billion per year in 2030 would be completely
compensated by health benefits, which are estimated at EUR 40 billion per year.
The Maximum Technically Feasible Reduction scenario is “Under the MTFR scenario 8.1 million people are expected to live within air quality zones where NO 2 standards (both WHO and AAQD) will be exceeded in 2030. About 40 % of the monitoring stations would exceed the WHO guideline for PM 2.5 (EC 2013a).” The Current Legislation Scenario is the business as usual, basically what is being done right now.
Thus we would get close to the WHO guidelines for some pollution indicators, but exceed the PM2.5 concentration levels that the WHO guidelines recommend. For this we however need to implement at least the Maximum Technically Feasible Reduction scenario. However, I could not find anywhere whether we are on the way to implement this scenario or not, or how far we are actually away from achieving this. It would be great if the European Environmental Agency were to provide some ideas about this. The fact that we are, europe-wide, not implementing this scenario, and that member states do not seem to take the EU regulations too serious, shows that we are most likely far away from adhering to the laxer EU regulations, and even further away from closing the gap to the WHO guidelines.
The conclusions from this: If we want to continue with our comfortable lives, driving our cars as we do, heating our houses as we do, and have our consumption products be transported from long distances, as we do, then we are going to have to accept the current air pollution levels for quite some while and have to accept that, especially in urban centres, people will continue to be substantially harmed by air pollution.
Additionally, if we do not vote for those politicians at home that support at least this EU regulation and try to implement it as much as possible, then we cannot hope that member states are going to push for tightening of local and EU-wide regulations or moving closer to scenarios that, at least the Cost-Benefit scenarios from the European Environmental Agency, suggest would close the gap between the costs and benefits. And the benefits here are improvements in life expectancy, health and living standards. It seems unquestionable that most people prefer to have another year added to their lives through reductions in air pollution, but in order to do so they have to choose the right politicians and think twice before taking the comfortable solutions, like commuting in the car to work.