This Valentine’s Day, love is not in the air

With continuing cases of highly polluted air, and proposed legislation that risks being diluted, Cupid’s natural environment is increasingly on the line with Europe’s air still toxic.

In 2021, the World Health Organization updated their Air Quality Guidelines (AQG)s for the first time in 15 years, bringing in new recommendations for maximum amounts of air pollutant concentrations.  

A year after the updated guidelines, the European Commission followed suit and announced a proposed revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directives. The proposal would set interim 2030 EU air quality standards, aligned more closely with World Health Organization guidelines, while putting the EU on a trajectory to achieve zero pollution for air at the latest by 2050.

What causes air pollution?

Air pollution is largely caused by road traffic, shipping, agriculture, domestic heating and power plants. These sources produce several different substances that have a negative effect on air quality.  

While historic data shows that air pollution has decreased over the last 50 years, there has been an increase in air pollution linked to domestic heating over the past year. In an effort to reduce their reliance on Russian fossil fuels, European countries have resorted to the burning of solid fuels to keep warm through the winter.

But even before this energy crisis, domestic heating with wood and coal in small private stoves and boilers was responsible for the emission of almost half of all fine particulate matter and black carbon within the European Union. 

There has also been limited progress with agriculture, another significant source of air pollution, which is responsible for more than 90% of ammonia and more than 50% of methane emissions in the EU. Ammonia and methane are major contributors to particulate matter (PM) and ozone – arguably the most dangerous pollutants for human health. 

The current state of air in the EU

Air pollution continues to pose significant risks to health in Europe. The EEA estimates that in 2022, at least 238,000 premature deaths were caused by exposure to poor quality air – but that number could be even higher. A new study suggests the mortality risk linked to air pollution was increased even at very low levels of fine particulate matter. 

In 2022, 29 out of 95 Italian cities exceeded the daily PM10 limits. The worst offenders were Turin, Milan, Modena, Asti, Padua and Venice, recording more than double the permitted overruns. 

When comparing the results against the proposed European targets set for 2030, the situation is even more critical: 76% of cities break the limits for PM10, 84% for PM2.5 and 61% for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). 

These shocking findings run contrary to what Europeans believe and want to see happen with regards to air quality.

Most Europeans recognise that health conditions such as respiratory diseases (89%), asthma (88%), and cardiovascular diseases are serious problems in their countries that result from air pollution.   

However, 60% of the respondents did not feel well informed about air quality and that most Europeans (27%) have not heard of EU air quality standards before. Amongst those who had heard of the standards, there is significant support (67%) for strengthening them.  

Costs and benefits favour action on air quality

Beyond the health benefits, the European Commission’s own economic estimates suggest that the proposal will save €42 billion, with the total cost of the measures sitting at only €6 billion.

The Commission also estimates that the proposal would reduce damage to crops, forests and other natural habitats.  

The huge difference between the associated costs and benefits of the proposal also begs the question why more urgent action has not yet taken place and why there still remains the risk of the proposal being diluted during the remaining legislative process.

A change of heart?

The AAQD proposal is a step in the right direction for protecting Europeans – it includes tougher air pollution limits and stricter monitoring requirements to tackle our dangerous air. However, the proposal has now passed to the European Parliament and the European Council and there are growing concerns that the Commission’s proposal will ultimately be diluted.  

Instead of being watered down, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and European Environment Ministers need to build on the ambition of the proposal and strengthen it.  

The average citizen’s vulnerability to air pollution is out of their individual control. Air pollution knows no border and its effects change based on age, health condition and socio-economic status. The revision of the EU’s clean air standards therefore provides a unique and not-to-be missed opportunity to protect the average citizen from premature death, heart disease, cancer, asthma attacks and more. 

After all, if we are successful in clearing our skies, we may also afford Cupid the chance to take better aim and hit one of us with his lucky arrows.