Poor air quality is ‘major threat’ to EU public health

Action is needed at EU level if air pollution is to be brought down to recommended levels, writes Janez Potočnik.

By Janez Potocnik

31 Mar 2014

Clean air matters to all of us. A Eurobarometer survey conducted during the review of the EU’s air policy showed the widespread concern about the impacts of air pollution on health, and we are right to be worried. Air pollution is an ‘invisible killer’ which causes more than 400,000 premature deaths every year in the EU, 10 times more than car accidents. It also prevents many of us, in particular children, the elderly and those suffering from asthma and respiratory conditions, from living an active healthy life.

The main problem is particles in the air which cause lung or cardiovascular diseases and cancer. According to the world health organisation (WHO), poor air quality is currently one of the major threats to public health, causing more than seven million premature deaths worldwide. This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. Even leaving aside the unacceptable health impacts, the economic costs for society are enormous, estimated at between three and nine per cent of EU GDP. As a concrete example, 100 million workdays are lost each year in the EU due to diseases linked to air pollution.

According to the world health organisation, poor air quality is currently one of the major threats to public health, causing more than seven million premature deaths worldwide

A recent review of EU air policy shows that, despite significant improvements in the last few decades, there is still substantial noncompliance with existing legislation, and we are far from achieving the levels recommended by the WHO to protect human health.

So it is clear that further action is needed. The European commission tabled a clean air policy package in December 2013, designed to achieve full implementation of existing air quality legislation by 2020 at the very latest, and to bring down emissions further by 2030.

To ensure compliance we need to both support member states through EU funding mechanisms, and to pursue infringement action as necessary. The impact of reinforced implementation is already being seen in the range of promising measures that are now being considered at different levels of government.

As a further step in pollution reduction, the package includes two legislative proposals. First, the package proposes a new national emission ceilings directive with new individual emissions caps for key air pollutants in all member states for 2020 and 2030. These caps on emissions will ensure that concentrations, and health and environmental impacts, are brought down across Europe. Second, it proposes a new directive filling the main gap in control of pollution sources, including the regulation of emissions from medium-sized combustion installations used in the power sector and industry.

We can prevent air pollution. This is a unique opportunity to agree a new air policy that improves quality of life for millions of citizens, while delivering a positive net effect on both economic growth and on employment at the same time. Given the strong position of our pollution abatement industry, and the air pollution challenges around the world, it also provides a stimulus for innovation, exports, growth and jobs.