Love is in the air…but so is pollution

With continuing cases of highly polluted air, and proposed legislation that risks being delayed, 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 were released, the European Commission followed suit and announced a proposed revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directives which aimed to set interim 2030 EU air quality standards aligned with the WHO.

The proposal was initially improved upon by the European Parliament but is now facing opposition within the Council of the EU, which could include derogations in the legislation that would push compliance to 2040 and beyond.

What causes air pollution?

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

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

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 EU. 

There has also been limited progress with agriculture, another significant source of air pollution, which is responsible for more than 90% of ammonia and 54% 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 study suggests the mortality risk linked to air pollution was increased even when 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.

According to a Eurobarometer survey, 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 most Europeans (73%) had not heard of EU air quality standards before.

The good news is that amongst those who had heard of the standards, there is a clearly significant majority (67%) that support strengthening them. In a year of European elections, this is something that should also make potential Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) take notice.

Costs and benefits favour air quality action

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 estimated 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 European Parliament’s AAQD position would be 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 proposed legislation has now passed to the trilogue stage where the three institutions will negotiate a common position. There are growing concerns now that some Member States are asking to delay compliance deadlines to 2040 and beyond, a move that could result in 327,600 additional deaths according to a scientific analysis.  

Instead of being watered down and delayed, Member States need to act now and build on the ambition of the Parliament’s position.

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.