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Forgotten air


Tuesday 8 January 2013

Over the past 15 years, as concern about carbon emissions has grown, there has been less talk about the traditional sort of air pollution people were concerned about decades ago. This isn't because such air pollution is a thing of the past.

While there has been progress in reducing some pollutants – such as ozone-depleting pollutants – air pollution remains a significant problem worldwide. A new report published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) shows that a third of Europe's city-dwellers are exposed to polluted air. Excessive concentrations of air pollutants in Europe are causing half a million premature deaths in the EU every year as well as significant health problems.

A new Eurobarometre poll released today shows that 72% of EU citizens say that public authorities are not doing enough to promote good air quality. Yet this survey response does not seem to be reflected in the importance governing bodies are placing on the issue. Implementation of EU rules regarding air pollution remains one of the areas with the poorest compliance by member states, despite the fact that the current EU standards for ambient air quality are already much weaker than those recommended by the World Health Organization.

For example, the EU maximum concentration for fine particles (PM2.5), one of the pollutants with the highest impact on people's health, is 2.5 times weaker than what the WHO recommends. In comparison, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is this year proposing a much lower annual limit. The EU has also shown little ambition in its stances at international air pollution talks

Perhaps this is because while there is a political payoff for national governments taking carbon emissions seriously, air pollution has receeded so far back in the public's mind that there is little political benefit to new regulations. 60% of the survey's respondents said they do not feel well informed about air pollution. While theoretically Europeans can agree that air pollution is a concern, it does not appear to be at the top of their minds.

To bring the issue back into the public debate, the European Commission has dedicated 2013 as being the ‘year of air'. During the course of the year the environment directorate is going to carry out a review of EU air policy which is expected to lead to legislative proposals later in the year. This will include a revision of the National Emission Ceilings directive.

At a clean air conference today organised by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik admitted that “the air quality review will be a tough fight, but I'm ready for that.”

During today's event, several speakers discussed the difficulty of getting the public on side for what should be in their own interest. Dutch Liberal MEP Gerben Jan Gerbrandy recounted how a few years ago the Dutch government was able to blame 'Brussels' after a Dutch judge halted the construction of a new highway because it would not comply with EU air quality standards. The Dutch media was able to convince the public that this was Brussels intruding on a member state's sovereignty to choose which construction projects it wants to build. When in fact, said Gerbrandy, the public should realise that a new highway is not worth the health risks and lower life span that comes with it.

Finnish Green MEP Satu Hassi said she experienced something similar as she was shepherding new limits on sulphur emitted by ships through the European Parliament. She said the Finnish media was largely parroting the line of the Nordic shipping industry, which was fiercely resisting the new limits for the Baltic Sea. This led to the public being hostile to the new limits, when really the limits are in their own self-interest, she said.

Jos Dings, head of the campaign group Transport & Environment said that air quality campaigners need to learn lessons from the climate debate. He pointed to the fact that industry has been brought into the climate fight by the economic opportunities inherent in clean technology. He noted that Europe has historically had a lead in air quality legislation, and Europeans should use this technology advantage and expertise to capitalise on the growing markets for pollution-abating technology in China, the US and the developing world.

Commissioner Potocnik observed that the United States is now more ambitious than the EU when it comes to air quality legislation. I suspect this is in no small part due to the fact that air pollution is regulated by an executive agency – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Much of this regulation does not have to be passed by the US Congress (which is the reason the US has become the only country to define CO2 as a pollutant – so it can be regulated by the EPA, bypassing congress). By contrast, EU air quality legislation faces the scrutiny of sceptical member states and MEPs. A representative of the EPA spoke about the US experience at the conference in the afternoon.

There was perhaps to better illustration of the degree to which climate change is overshadowing the air quality issue than the fact that the conference's final panel, taking place right now, is devoted to climate change. Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for climate, is speaking about how further action on climate will also help air quality.

But while there are some common solutions for both greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants, in most ways they are two very different things. Air quality campaigners may not be able to rely on piggy-backing on climate change in order to have their voices heard.

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Observations and comment from European Voice's environment reporter.

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