March blows air quality back onto the agenda

Tower Bridge in fog

Tower Bridge in fog

This month air has become increasingly visible: literally and metaphorically. As air pollution blew across the continent, a series of illuminating events has meant that the issue of air quality also blew to the forefront of media, public and political concern. First, on the 3rd of March, came the announcement by the European Environment Agency (EEA) that air pollution is causing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths in Europe each year. As if on cue a fortnight later, on the 17th of March, Londoners received the Mayor’s first high alert for air pollution of 2015 as the capital became shrouded in smog. Pollution blowing in from the continent meant the outside was off-limits to all those who suffer from (or do not wish to suffer from) heart or lung conditions. Also this month, a Greenpeace report warned the pollution situation is worsening and accounted for it by arguing that Europe’s biggest polluters have effectively become their own regulators. The report claimed that governments have allowed energy companies to water down meaningful policy, a lack of which has already landed the UK in court with the EU as many of its cities are illegal in terms of air quality. Across the channel, the severe pollution forced the Parisian mayor to take severe action on Monday the 23rd, with public transport made gratuit and only cars with odd number plates allowed to enter the city in a desperate attempt to lessen the smog.

Although air pollution is big news at present, it is not new news. Generating energy and electricity to heat our homes, power our devices and drive our cars has long resulted in the release of emissions. These emissions are not only of hated carbon dioxide, which is polluting our climate on a global scale, but also sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides, methane, carbon monoxides, metals and particulate matter, which are polluting our air on a local scale, or specifically polluting the lungs of all in range.

Climate change is a hazard that perpetrates inequality and injustice as those who pollute the most are very rarely the most affected. Air pollution is far more direct. If a city pollutes, its people will be affected, and the city will face the health and economic consequences of illness and loss of productivity. The cost of these consequences to the UK has been estimated at £10bn per year by the EEA. The only discriminating factor in this otherwise equitable hazard is the prevailing wind. Because of this, the rich choose to live in west London so their emissions blow off to affect eastern parts of the city, historically poorer economically due to their poorer air.

However with this clearer ability to identify the cause, comes a clearer ability to tackle the problem, and ultimately achieve clearer air. In theory. In reality, it has long been argued by environmentalists that EU legislation on air quality is too weak, and that much more needs to be done to prevent the return of smog. The citizens of European cities look to the EU to be the catalyst for change. Air quality in the EU is a shared and common problem, as travelling toxic emissions do not respect political boundaries. The solution to air quality in the EU also needs to be shared and common. Supra-national legislation means the same rules and penalties apply to all, forcing cooperation instead of competition. EU policy has historically far outshone the success of national policy alone. Now EU policy could do much to improve air quality across the union and avoid a Hardinian tragedy of the commons.

The current rules on air quality in Europe have been in place since 2008 when previous limits of pollutants were merged into a single directive. This directive set limits for each pollutant and required member states to make action plans to meet these limits on certain timescales. All parts of all member states are accountable to equal standards which are equally low. Within this broad legislation some have fallen below and others have risen above what was necessary. Berlin, Germany for example has been awarded the envious title of the European city with the cleanest air. The city’s comprehensive strategy, combining policies against car use with provision of good public transport and a decade-long promotion of cycling, has allowed the significant improvement with some pollutants such as particulate matter, falling by over 50% since 2007. Similarly the Nordic countries have fared well, with Copenhagen and Stockholm sharing second place, largely due to the prevalence of cycling which does not worsen air quality whilst improving the general health of the population. Other cities, however, including Germany’s Düsseldorf and Stuttgart as well as notoriously filthy London, have not been so successful. In terms of punishment and enforcement, if the directive is not met, the state has broken the law, and can be fined or taken to court. The UK was required to lower its nitrogen dioxide levels by 2015 but under current plans will well overshoot this target, in some places including London, by as much as 20 years. The group ClientEarth’s case against the UK government will be heard by the UK Supreme Court in April.

Despite the success stories, a lack of sufficient progress across much of Europe is endemic, and has not gone uncriticised. Greenpeace has argued that the current EU legislation on air quality is weaker than that of infamously polluted China and needs to be strengthened. The World Health Organisation’s air pollution guidelines support this view, recommending far stricter regulations than member states are currently required to adhere to. These critiques have prompted calls, from environmental and health groups alike, for a legislation upgrade from the old 2008 directive. And it seemed these calls were partly answered, when the Barroso commission proposed new legislation in late 2013 as part of their “Year of Air” including stricter limits on emissions of six key air pollutants. The new legislation could have forced a greater clean-up of EU air, meaning that clear skies, good health and prosperous societies would flourish across the continent.

This dream sadly came to an abrupt end. When the Barroso commission was replaced by the Juncker commission in late 2014, all the promising air quality legislation was condemned to be scrapped, or at least heavily diluted and delayed. Why? Well it is unclear why. Perhaps they generally think clean air is not a good thing for Europe. Perhaps, as Greenpeace suggest, they were made to think so by the big companies. Whatever the reason for putting air quality legislation on hold, March has shown there are so many reasons to take it off hold, and onto fast track.

The pitiable air quality of much of Europe is truly inexcusable, considering the level of development of Europe’s nations and all the options of what can be done. We only need to do what we already know we can. Promoting and lowering the price of public transport is essential, and should be combined with the introduction of low emission zones to reduce cars entering polluted city centres. For vehicles that must enter centres, policy action should be taken to discourage diesel (good for CO2 and efficiency on long journeys, bad for air quality in city traffic), encourage electric vehicles (especially taxis) and implement initiatives like fines for leaving engines on whilst stationary, as is being done in London. Banning heavy freight vehicles from entering polluted areas, encouraging diversions where necessary and limiting entry to certain times when unavoidable would add to the progress made by reducing private cars. Many UK cities have already achieved this, with consolidated deliveries organised at out of town lorry parks. Removing the need for motorised travel altogether is obviously the most desirable option, through promoting cycling and walking. The British government is already trying to encourage this after discovering that 67% of journeys in 2013 were less than an easy bike ride of 5 miles and 18% were less than an easy walk of one mile.

These polices have the potential to create a positive feedback or cycle of prosperity for air quality in cities and the climate more generally. With less congestion and cleaner air, the streets will be a more pleasant place. Pleasant streets should promote walking and cycling which in turn reduces the number of vehicles and the level of toxic pollution as well as the volume of CO2 emissions. Member states clearly need an incentive to make the push to start this cycle of prosperity spiralling upwards, and make the necessary investments and sacrifices. This push, as with most environmental measures, needs to come from the EU. The same requirements need to be applied to all, so no state feels they are investing and sacrificing at an unfair competitive disadvantage, as clearly clean air is not advantageous enough alone. The EU needs to be the stick, so Member states can pursue the carrot of clean air and all its benefits.

The EU’s current policy is lacking. But this March has pushed air quality into the news and onto the agenda. With this new pressure for action, perhaps the winds of change may finally start to blow.

Suzanna Hinson is studying for a MSc in Climate Change at Brunel University

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