Europe’s air pollution crisis brings climate reality close to home

Below, my article as it appears in this month’s Village magazine…

WHILE global pollution crises, from climate change to plastics in the oceans, are showing no signs of abating, the worst effects are, we in the ‘developed world’ are reassured to believe, clustered in poorer countries and distant ecosystems.

One of the many environmental paradoxes is that, while global ecological indexes are in freefall, we in the more prosperous parts of the world have never had it so good. The outsourcing of heavy industry from much of Europe and the US to the Far East over the last two decades has been a win-win for the west. The cost of manufactured goods plummeted thanks to the vast new pools of cheap labour, leading to the last decade and a half turning into greatest shopping spree in human history.

While we shopped, they dropped. China today burns nearly half the world’s coal. Air pollution is now so severe that Chinese scientists have described its effects as being akin to a nuclear winter, with photosynthesis in plants being disrupted – potentially wreaking havoc on China’s food supply. A 2104 report from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences stated that that Beijing’s pollution levels made the city “almost uninhabitable for human beings”.

While the climate-altering greenhouses gases spewing from thousands of new smokestacks across Asia are demonstrably as much a threat to Ireland as they are to China or India, it remains alarmingly easy for our politicians and policymakers to poo poo such abstractions as the concentrations of an invisible, odourless gas like carbon dioxide (CO2) while instead tilting their ire, Don Quixote-style at ‘unsightly’ windmills.

And while the silent apocalypse being wrought by the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels inches ever closer, we can at least console ourselves that it’s a problem for ‘other’ people (those divided from us either by geography or by time) to deal with.

This narrow view was shattered by a recent report from the World Health Organisation (Europe) that took an in-depth look at the costs to Europe right now from air pollution. The word they used to summarise their own conclusions was “staggering”. It’s hardly an overstatement. The WHO study attributed some 600,000 deaths in Europe every year directly as a result of air pollution; it calculated the annual cost of illness and death at some $1.6 trillion (yes, trillion).

This enormous sum is the equivalent of some 10% of the GDP of the entire European Union. “Curbing the health effects of air pollution pays dividends. The evidence we have provides decision-makers across the whole of government with a compelling reason to act”, according to Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “If different sectors come together on this, we not only save more lives but also achieve results that are worth astounding amounts of money”.

The economic cost of deaths accounts for over US$ 1.4 trillion per annum. Another 10% is added to this to account for the cost of diseases from air pollution, resulting in the total of around US$ 1.6 trillion. The economic value of deaths and diseases due to air pollution is, according to the WHO, based on the amount societies are willing to pay to avoid these deaths and diseases with necessary interventions. In these calculations, “a value is attached to each death and disease, independent of the age of the person and which varies according to the national economic context”.

More than nine in 10 people living in the European Region are exposed to annual levels of outdoor fine particulate matter that are in excess of the WHO’s air quality guidelines. This translates into 482,000 premature deaths in 2012 from heart and respiratory diseases and strokes, as well as lung cancers. Indoor air pollution accounted for another 117,200 premature deaths, five times more in poorer than in higher-income European countries.

A related WHO study tallied that one in four Europeans falls ill or dies prematurely from environmental pollution. So much for this simply being a far-away problem affecting people and places we know and care little about.

The law of unintended consequences applies in attempts at curbing pollution. Many European governments, including the Fianna Fail/Green coalition, moved to introduce reforms in motor taxation to favour vehicles that produced lower CO2 emissions. While this undoubtedly nudged car makers into producing cleaner engines, the single biggest switch was from petrol to diesel combustion.

The massive shift to diesel on Irish roads has happened rapidly. This seemingly ‘environmentally friendly’ move (diesel engines produce around 20% less CO2 per kilometre travelled than petrol equivalents) has a nasty sting in the tailpipe. Diesel engines emit 10 times the fine particles and up to twice the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) of petrol. These toxins have been linked to 7,000 deaths in the UK each year.

A study in the medical journal, The Lancet in 2011 implicated traffic exposure to particulates as the single most serious preventable trigger of heart attack in the general public, and the principal cause of 7.4% of all attacks. Particulates are classed as carcinogens by the WHO. Fine particulates (those below 2.5 micrometers, or less than 30 times smaller than the width of a single strand of hair) are particularly dangerous.

These microscopic particulates penetrate deep into the lungs, and into individual alveoli, passing through cell membranes and migrating into other organs. Established health effects include asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, premature delivery, birth defects and premature death. Infants and children are particularly at risk from the effects of particulates, and these in turn are most intense in urban areas in proximity to heavy traffic.

In April 2015, its Supreme Court ruled that the British government must take urgent steps to tackle air pollution in cities. The UK is facing huge fines from the European Commission for failing to cut levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

The Supreme court ordered the UK Department for the Environment to draw up new air quality plans by the end of 2015, setting out how it plans to dramatically tackle air pollution.

According to the WHO analysis, the cost to Ireland of air pollution is just over $2.5 billion annually, estimated at around 1.3% of Ireland’s GNP. The figures are very significantly higher in many eastern European countries, where the annual cost of air pollution averages up to 20% of GNP.

Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency monitors domestic air quality, and in 2014 it raised concerns over levels of the cancer-causing particulates and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which are produced by burning solid fuels, and ozone which in high concentrations causes breathing problems, damages lungs and can trigger asthma.

The EPA noted that local air quality was significantly impacted by burning coal or peat in the home, as well as the level of vehicular traffic in urban areas. The EPA also expressed concern about the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air in urban areas.

“Ireland must develop and implement policies to reduce travel demand, emphasising sustainable transport modes such as cycling, walking and public transport and improving the efficiency of motorised transport,” according to the EPA.

In tandem with its atrocious performance on the Climate Bill, there is zero indication that the government or indeed the execrable current environment minister, Alan Kelly has any interest whatever in curbing pollution or tackling our spiralling transport and agricultural emissions, any more than he has in lifting a finger on climate change.

To the contrary, the science-illiterate Kelly appears to favour a return to industry-friendly light touch regulation in housing, coupled with vague and deliberately meaningless ‘targets’ on emissions reduction with no mechanism to actually deliver them.

We may now be witnessing a rapid regression to the cowboy building blitz of the boom years, coupled with toothless and useless climate legislation. Meanwhile, the new WHO data on air pollution is a timely reminder that what you can’t see can indeed hurt you. Right now, people are paying with their health and their lives for our failure to address air pollution.

The same steps needed to tackle this epidemic would also set us on the road to climate stabilisation by reining in the reckless burning of fossil fuels and rapidly transitioning to clean, safe alternatives. But as long as we continue to vote in politicians prepared to gamble with our health as well as our future, that prospect remains remote in the extreme.

– John Gibbons writes on climate and environmental issues and is online @think_or_swim

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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