Air pollution a matter of life and death

Virginijus Sinkevicius.
Virginijus Sinkevicius. Source: European Commission

As the EU prepares a new package of ambitious measures to prevent pollution, EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius lays out the case for stronger protection.

Maybe it's the fact that we all wore masks for so long. Maybe it's because there are more of us on bicycles, or perhaps we know someone who's suffered the consequences of air pollution. But from our latest survey, we see that Europeans are now very concerned about the air they breathe.

EU policies have brought major improvements in the quality of our air, but more needs to be done. The main culprits are particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone from energy, transport, industry and agriculture. Absorbed through our lungs, they pass into our blood, damaging vital organs and, according to some studies, they may even damage our brain.

Around Europe, air pollution is still the number one environmental cause of premature death, with hundreds of thousands of people dying early every year due to dirty air. In Estonia, the most recent figures show 500 people dying before their time every year. Millions more suffer from the effects of polluted air, with asthma, cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer, all of which are now linked to pollution beyond dispute.

The vulnerable suffer most from air pollution, with children, the elderly and poorer people more badly affected. In the words of the WHO, air pollution is ubiquitous and involuntary – it affects you regardless of what you do. We can't choose the air we breathe, but we can choose to improve it.  It's time for a new approach, with effective measures to speed the change.

That's why this week the European Commission is going to propose a major upgrade of air quality legislation. It's time to give our zero pollution goals the force of law, halving the damaging health impacts of air pollution by 2030, and ensuring that at the latest by the middle of this century, the quality of our air is no longer harmful to human health.

Our citizens firmly believe that EU air quality standards ought to be stronger. Most citizens believe that large industrial installations and fossil-fuel based energy producers are not doing enough to ensure good air quality. The European citizens ask for stricter pollution controls for all these activities. Household heating, agriculture and transport also still pollute too much. As a result, over 9 in 10 urban dwellers in the EU are exposed to levels of air pollution above the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO).

So there's an urgent need to raise the standards, and align them more closely with WHO guidelines. And we will keep those standards under regular review, to update them according to science and technological progress.  The new law will also provide better public information, and a better framework for local authorities to achieve cleaner air.

The health benefits will be substantial, with lower rates of mortality and illness, and a lower burden on overstretched healthcare systems. It will also help secure our food supply as ozone is a significant cause of reduced crop yields. The benefits far outweigh the costs, with total gross benefits estimated at €42-121 billion in 2030, for measures that should cost less than €6 euros. And we cannot put a price tag on the life of our beloved ones.

That's why the proposal will bring major novelties to make sure EU rules are implemented and citizens are protected: better air quality monitoring and modelling to make sure we know exactly what is going on, clearer rules on access to justice and effective penalties when laws are breached.

In Estonia, those 500 deaths could be prevented. It's time to face the facts, and time for new measures that save human lives. It's what our citizens demand and that's what they deserve.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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