Air pollution now causes an estimated 29,000 deaths in the UK a year, almost as many as smoking. It was quite rightly described as a "public health crisis" recently by the UK House of Commons environmental audit committee.
Yet often we do not accord air pollution the same attention as other major causes of health problems such as cigarettes, alcohol and obesity. Because it is an invisible killer, pollution often slips under the radar and governments and local authorities do not do enough to tackle it. Moreover, while the long-term savings to health costs are vast, investing in reducing pollution is costly in the short-term.
That is why it is vital that we put in place strong European Union limits that force governments across Europe to take action. I am currently working on an EU law that will introduce stricter, clearer national limits on six of the most harmful pollutants.
"It is vital that we put in place strong European Union limits that force governments across Europe to take action"
This forms part of the EU's clean air package, which if fully implemented could lead to annual savings of around £30bn (€46bn) a year across Europe, 12 times the cost of pollution abatement. More importantly, it would prevent an estimated 58,000 premature deaths by 2030.
My own South East region stands to especially benefit from this vital legislation. Pollution in any given region and at any time of year is only partly made up of what is being emitted locally.
In fact, studies have found that 40 per cent of Britain's most deadly pollutants (PM 2.5) originate from abroad, largely elsewhere in Europe. The south coast of England is particularly vulnerable to air pollution flowing in from the continent, especially during periods of low pressure.
That is why in places like Southampton, listed amongst Britain's most polluted cities, efforts to address local pollution must be combined with a wider European approach.
Unfortunately, it seems that many Tories fail to understand the importance of EU legislation in improving air quality.
Last week, the European commission confirmed it will go ahead with the EU's clean air laws following pressure from MEPs, a majority of whom back the package.
"Almost all Conservative MEPs voted for the law to be watered down to "reduce administrative burdens""
Yet this was with no thanks to Conservative MEPs, who voted against key amendments in a series of European parliament resolutions to keep this vital legislation on the table. Instead, almost all Conservative MEPs voted for the law to be watered down to "reduce administrative burdens."
It seems many Tories don't understand the difference between cutting red tape and cutting life expectancy. It's time for them to face up to the fact that the only way to tackle this silent killer and improve air quality is through EU-wide action.
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