Improving air quality is 'win-win situation', argues MEP

The EU is proud to have taken the international lead in emission reduction - but at what cost?  Asks Eija-Riitta Korhola.

By Eija-Riitta Korhola

18 Dec 2013

There is little doubt that the climate is changing, but the link to man-made emissions, particularly CO2, remains controversial. So, in the wake of the COP19 summit last month where, once again, progress towards a global agreement was minimal, maybe it is time to look at emissions from the point of view of the air that we breathe today - and not just the possible impact on climate change in the future.

Although we can be pleased that emissions of most air pollutants have declined substantially over the past few decades in Europe and the actual concentration levels are significantly lower than in the USA, we still do not come close to the safe levels set by the World Health Organisation. Our progress is thanks, in part, to recent regulations, polices and human habits and we should be proud of that.

But a study by the European environment agency suggests that virtually everyone living in European cities is exposed to dangerously poor quality air.

Even these improved EU air quality levels can lead to respiratory illnesses, heart problems and lower life expectancy. Quite simply, air pollutant concentrations are too high, and pollution of the air due, in particular, to ozone, nitrogen oxides and black carbon pollutants creates serious health risks both today and in the longer term. Even one could argue that black carbon emission should fall within the emissions trading scheme system.

[pullquote]As many as 430,000 people die prematurely each year in the EU because of air pollutants, with billions of euros being spent on the treatment of the diseases they cause, plus the consequent employee time lost is severely hampering our need for global competitiveness and economic recovery[/pullquote]. Some of these air pollutants also cause acid rain leading to deforestation, loss of biodiversity and damage to buildings and materials. The causes of this environmental and human damage include, for example, the still increasing global use of fossil fuels in the generation of electricity and in transport. Globally, more than 1000MW of coal-fired electricity generation plant is commissioned every five days without the tremendous potential of 'clean coal' burning which is so important to develop.  Industry and households continue to rely on fossil fuels for their energy. Plus many industrial and agricultural processes emit the same pollutants into the atmosphere where even the often exceeded legal limits are simply inadequate.

Whatever we all consider the priorities are concerning man's possible contribution to climate change, improving our air quality is a win-win situation. Almost all of the air pollutants leading to these health risks are included in global attempts, like COP19, to reduce the so-called greenhouse gasses. With this understanding and slight change of emphasis from climate to health, we could derive enormous benefits in the EU and globally. For example, we know that one possible factor in the slowdown in the increase in greenhouses gases in China is the heavy investment in improvements to air quality - not any commitment to Kyoto principles. Similar evidence exists in the USA where, although absolute levels of air pollutants remain higher than in the EU, we have seen a dramatic improvement there due mainly to attempts to improve air quality without even taking part in the Kyoto process.

So I ask myself, is the Kyoto process, which has almost ground to a halt now, an obstacle to progress regarding improvements to the air that we breathe?

The EU wants to lead in environmental measures - but leaders need followers and followers need to be convinced of the worth.

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