New European air laws can save lives and help the climate. A key vote takes place in the European Parliament today.
Europe has gone through yet another impossibly hot summer. Soaring temperatures and the consequent droughts and wildfires have assaulted the continent. There will be some respite in the change of seasons, yet this could end up having been the coldest summer of the rest of our lives.
In addition to the climate crisis, however, another silent emergency has been brewing for years—poor air quality. This will only worsen with ever-hotter summers, while exacerbating them in turn.
Every year, poor air quality leads to around 230,000 premature deaths in the European Union. The estimated annual health-related economic costs stemming from air pollution are up to €940 billion across the EU. In urban areas, 96 per cent of inhabitants are exposed to dangerous levels of fine particular matter (PM2.5) and other deadly air pollutants.
Last month, University of Chicago researchers published research showing that the negative health effects of air-pollution exposure can be compared to smoking and are significantly more harmful than alcohol use. Yet while it has been recognised for years that alcohol and tobacco are a social concern, air pollution is rarely treated as such.
Indeed, the social dimension is extremely important. The most vulnerable groups in society, including children, the elderly and individuals with pre-existing health conditions, are disproportionately affected by poor air quality. Low-income neighbourhoods often suffer the most, as explained in a European Environment Agency (EEA) report on its differential exposure and impact.
The poor face multiple pollution threats: low air quality is often coupled with other toxic exposures, such as from chemicals or non-potable water. This compounds the climate crisis, as low-income areas are often more affected by extreme-weather events, such as floods and heatwaves. So air quality is also a matter of social justice.
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Rather than adopt this holistic perspective, however, too often climate and air quality are seen as two separate issues—they are anything but. For example, warm temperatures and sunlight generate high concentrations of (ground-level) ozone. Ozone is a dangerous lung irritant and exposure can lead to a range of symptoms, from shortness of breath to asthma attacks and cardiovascular diseases. It also damages ecosystems and crops.
If the climate crisis and air quality are related, acting on one will almost always assist with the other. Take heating.
Wood and coal stoves and boilers create significantly higher emissions of pollutants than other heat sources (especially when it comes to particulate matter) and fare no better when it comes to carbon emissions. Bouts of winter smog they cause, often visible to the naked eye, take their toll—estimates suggest 61,000 people die prematurely in Europe per year due to solid-fuel heating in their homes. Faster introduction of clean-energy sources for heating, such as heat pumps, coupled with better insulation of buildings would bring immediate benefits on both fronts.
In cities, policies supporting climate resilience almost always lead to air-quality gains. Slowing traffic, adding green spaces and promoting activity and more sustainable transport are all bulletproof measures to bring win-wins. The EEA also found that actions to reduce traffic and introduce low-emission zones particularly benefited vulnerable groups, more likely to live close to busy roads.
In the rural world, overhaul of intensive animal farming and food systems could not only favour significant reduction of meat production and consumption, with public-health spin-offs. In Europe, agriculture accounts for more than half of methane emissions—with much greater greenhouse-gas effect than carbon dioxide—and more than 90 per cent of those of ammonia.
Methane is a precursor of ground-level ozone, while ammonia plays a very big role in the formation of deadly fine particulate matter—what one could imagine as dust. Reducing both would improve air quality in the countryside and neighbouring towns and cities while alleviating their climate impacts.
In 2022 a crowdsourcing exercise was conducted by social scientists and environmental experts to gather citizens’ views on air quality from several EU member states. This led to ten recommendations for European and national decision-makers, detailing those air-quality measures necessary to reduce air pollution swiftly.
The EU is not on track to reach its climate goals and more action is needed to achieve the ‘net zero’ target by 2050. There is a unique opportunity to kill two birds with one stone via ambitious air-quality legislation, through the revision of the ambient air-quality directives (AAQD). What is required are strict air-quality standards in line with the latest scientific knowledge, based on regularly updated WHO guidelines, as well as clear direction on implementation by the authorities.
This week the European Parliament is adopting its position on the AAQD. The parliament’s environmental committee has already expressed its position, calling for more ambition than in the European Commission’s initial proposal and alignment of EU air-quality standards with the WHO guidelines by 2030 at the latest.
Clean air and climate goals go hand in hand and there is no time to waste. MEPs must do the right thing—so we can all breathe more easily.