Air pollution still kills too many

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4.6.2013, Opening session of the Green Week

Dear commissioner Potocnik, dear friends
I am very honoured to be here at the opening of the Green Week Conference with the title Cleaner air for all.

Clean air is something all people appreciate and I hope this conference can help us to advance polices that will improve the situation.

On one hand air quality is one of the success stories of environmental policy. In the 1970-ies when I was a student, air pollution was visible, especially in wintertime, because new snow turned grey in a couple of days. Now snow stays white much longer – and Chinese visitors are astonished to see white snow in the middle of cities. In the 1980-ies acid rain was a major problem, forests were visibly suffering from acid rain. In the early 1990-ies gasoline burnt in cars still contained lead. The situation has improved enormously since those times.

On the other hand, althoug air pollution is not as visible any more, the situation is far from satisfactory, air pollution is still major public health and environmental problem in Europe:
It is estimated to cause nearly half a million (420.000) premature deaths each year. Air pollutions has also grave impacts on member states finances and the economy with increased hospital admissions, extra medication, millions of working days lost.

Over 80% of Europeans are exposed to particulate matter level above the WHO air quality guidelines .

Air pollution also damages the environment: in particular acidification and eutrophication with impacts on biodiversity

Costs estimates:
for year 2000 alone, health damage from air pollution amounted to between 277 and 790 billion EUR – these are only health costs.

Burning of coal deserves a special mention. The IEA has several times reminded as of the fact that globally subsidies for fossil fuels ecxeed the subsidies for renewable energy, the last figures by IEA say that globally the fossil subsidies were 6 times the subisidies of renewable energy. On top of that comes the health cost, which for coal burning in EU is estimated to be 43 billion a year.

Health and medical experts have called air pollution the invisible killer, and there is clearly a need for urgent action on this.

Also Europe’s citizens support action, a recent Eurobarometer has shown that clean air is a top worry for Europe’s citizens:

Majority of Europeans believe air quality has deteriorated in last 10 years
72% are unhappy with efforts of public authorities to improve air quality
Almost six out of 10 do not feel adequately informed about air quality issues
Almost 4 out of 5 believe the EU should propose additional measures to address air pollution

Scientists call for urgent action

Every year hundreds of studies on the health and environmental effects are published.

Unfortunately there is still lack of awareness. Recent news tell that in a survey done in the UK Parliament most MPs thought road traffic accidents are a bigger killer than air pollution. In reality it is vice versa, air pollution kills in UK over ten times more people than road accidents. Also in EU air pollution kills more than 10 times of the people killed in traffic accidents.

Always when legislation linked to sources of air pollution is on the table in the EP, there are lobbyists who try to downplay the health argument. In events paid by car industry I have met professors arguing that daily air pollution limit values are not relevant for our health, only yearly average values matter. I have heard MEP colleagues repeating this argument in the discussion. Last year I was the rapporteur for new sulphur limits for shipping fuel. The figures I have given on the mortality caused by pollution from ships have been labelled absurd at least in the domestic discussion in my own country.

Therefore I ask also the experts who have studied the health impact of air pollution, to participate more actively the public discussion. It is not enough that environmental NGOs and environmentally minded politicians are arguing for more ambitious air quality norms and policies.

Air pollution is not as visible any more as it was in the 1970ies and 1980ies, but it is still a big killer. We need more experts to say this also for the general public.

I also think that the health cost of air pollution should be more cearly on the table when we discuss related policies, e.g. climate policy.

WHO guidelines

The global standard we shoud take as our guideline are the World Health Organisation air quality guidelines.

WHO is the leading body when it comes to assessing the science, and it has conducted extensive reviews of the literature and issued recommendations for pollutant concentration levels to protect health.

As part of the EU air review, WHO has assessed science again in REVIHAAP project.

Preliminary conclusions which were issued this January:

Considerable amount of new scientific evidence on adverse health effects of particulate matter (PM), ozone and nitrogen oxide (NO2) has been published in recent years
This evidence more than confirms the 2005 WHO air quality guidelines

What is particularly worrying is that
damaging effects can occur at lower levels than previously thought,
range of health effects appears to be much broader than previously thought, especially for children’s health (harming development of brain+nervous system and cognitive function), and also diabetes

WHO calls for stronger EU air policies, for for the re-evaluation of PM2.5 and other standards.

Particulate matter – PM2.5

Is of special concern for health protection, as it is linked to large burden of disease
WHO underlines that there is considerable gap between the WHO standard for PM2.5 (10ug/m3, annual average), the standard the US has just set (12ug/m3 annual average) and EU standard (25 ug/m3 annual average) which will be a limit value only in 2015. The EU limit which will be effective 2015 is more than double compared with the US standard, and 2,5 times more than the WHO standard.

Europe should not fall behind the US when it comes to health protection. EU should be a front runner.

What needs to happen?

In the recent history of EU legislation there are too many missed opportunities (for example repeated delays of revision of National Emissions Ceilings Directive) and lack of political will: Too many member states still do not meet the EU standards that have been agreed more than 10 years ago

Commissioner Potocnik, what I would like to see from you this autumn are legislative proposals that reflect the urgency of reducing air pollution. The Air Quality Review taking place this year should clearly be a political priority.

EU has set itself the objective of reaching “levels of air quality that do not give rise to significant negative impacts on and risks to human health and the environment”.

This goal has been agreed on in the 1990s (in the 5th EU Environment Action Programme), has been underlined in 6th EAP, and also proposed for 7th EAP.

The Environment Committee of the EP has recently underlined that this goal still stands, and have urged that we need to speed up the action until 2020 and be more ambitious.

We want to see proposals that are focused on the question of what’s needed to reach goal of reducing damage on health and the environment.

The revised Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution should be ambitious, i.e. go much beyond the revised Gothenburg Protocol agreed last year at UNECE level, where EU commitments are very weak, for some countries weaker than baseline. Ambitious ceilings for 2020, 2025 are important. For 2030 the goal should be to achieve the objective of the 6th EAP, i.e. “to achieve levels of air quality that do not result in unacceptable impacts on, and risks to, human health and the environment.”

More than 60 organisations active at EU, national and local level have stated their 3 priorities for the review:

1. National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) Directive:
A cornerstone of EU air legislation, an effective tool which has been relatively well implemented by the member states.

The level of ambition should go significantly beyond what has been agreed on in the revised Gothenburg protocol.

An ambitious revised NEC can make major contribution for tackling climate change: introduce binding reduction commitments for methane (potent GHG and ozone precursor), and for black carbon under new mandatory ceiling for PM2.5.

NEC is also opportunity to fill regulatory gap on reducing mercury, as currently no law regulates total mercury emissions into the air.

2. Cut emissions from all major sources

The EU Commission should urgently propose source policy to cut air pollution.
In some sectors (shipping, agriculture, domestic combustion, small industrial combustion, road vehicles, non-road mobile machinery), the EU legislation is lagging behind. The air package should contain concrete legislative proposals for those sectors in 2013. We do not need declarations of good intentions in the air package, what is needed is legislative proposals now.

For these sectors EU legislative framework is insufficient, inadequate or non-existent: we need to regulate all sources

I would like to specifically mention shipping. As the rapporteur of the “Sulphur directive” I learned that without new legislation the sulphur emissions from ships in EU sea areas woud exceed combined emissions from all land based sources from EU-27 by 2020. Now we have implemented the new IMO sulphur limit 0,1 %, which will be effective 2015 in Northern Europe: The English Channel, North Sea, Baltic Sea. For the southern EU sea areas the 0,5 % sulphur limit will be effective in 2020. I would like to remind the Commission of the promise to study the costs and benefits of extending the 0,1 % sulphur limit to the territorial sea areas of all EU countries.

3. Enforcing, strengthening EU air quality standards

EU-wide binding limit values are absolutely key for health protection, have proven to be effective driver for action at local level.

I oppose any attempts to weaken the standards. I urge the member states to do their homework, there has been ample time to comply.

Current EU standards do not protect our health enough: review needs to look into strengthening them, we need timeline and date for the revision.

By introducing such regulation, future would look much brighter. Following an ambitious agenda would push further down the number of premature death and suffering caused by air pollution.

More ambitious policy would also help European industries to innovate new technologies and systems that can help them to be successful in the future market. We can see for example in China that people are demanding cleaner air, and European companies with cutting edge technologies have a huge potential there – including cleantech companies from my own country.

Dear friends, to conclude I would like to state again that
EU citizens have a right to clean air, but this right is still not a reality.
Every day people suffer, especially those who are particularly sensitive: children with asthma, patients with lung disease, the elderly.

We need to put clean air in the spotlight again, and as decision-makers set the path for real reductions. We owe it to the citizens and to our environment.

Mr. Commissioner Potocnik, I would like to urge you to continue to be tough on infringement action.

I wish all very successful Green Week and most fruitful elaborations about making our air cleaner.