Exposure to air pollution harms our health, and reducing air pollution saves money. These were the two of the main messages from last month’s conference of air pollution scientists in Brussels. Held just a few hundred metres from the European Commission, it sent a clear message to EU policymakers about the opportunities from adopting ambitious targets.
Each year across the 27 EU member states about 412,000 people die early from particle pollution, but this is just part of the impact. Air pollution is also a factor in many of our chronic diseases; it harms our health from before birth, through childhood and into our old age.
Prof Barbara Hoffman, of the University of Düsseldorf, said: “Air pollution at current European levels is not for free – it comes at great costs in terms of hospital care, loss of working days, work incapacity and reduced intelligence in kids. All this translates into a huge and preventable expense.”
Objectors often cite costs as a reason for not acting. Methods for calculating costs and benefits vary between countries but the overall message is similar. The benefits from reducing the health burden from air pollution are so high that these almost always outweigh the investment.
The US Clean Air Act and amendments are estimated to have saved the lives of 230,000 Americans in 2020. Add in reduced asthma, emergency room visits and days away from work and education, and the benefits add up to more than 30 times the investment. For the EU’s proposal, the projected benefit is at least 10 times greater than the cost and could be as much as 35 times greater. Extra benefits will also come from less pollution damage to forestry and valuable farm crops.
The UK’s government’s air pollution targets for England are less ambitious than the EU proposal. They have the same target for particle pollution, but aim to attain this 10 years after the EU. They do not include new limits for nitrogen dioxide. The estimated benefit is between five and six times greater than the investment.
The World Bank estimates that the health impacts of air pollution amount to 6.1 % of global gross domestic product. The EU has an opportunity to become a world leader in technology and actions for clean air.
Dr Hanna Boogaard, of the US Health Effects Institute, said: “The new EU proposal is a bargain investment and not a risky bet. Europe has shown global leadership before, in its green deal, its zero-pollution action plan and the Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan. The world is watching.”