FROM "THE ECONOMIST" - DECEMBER 2015
Europe Air pollution
Choking on it
Air pollution kills 400,000 Europeans a year
IN WIELICZKA, near Krakow, a handful of locals have gathered in a hotel conference room to bemoan air pollution. One woman complains of sinus problems caused by soot; another worries about her children playing outside. A man grumbles that police rarely prosecute residents for burning rubbish. It is a tiny gathering compared with the huge climate-change conference that kicked off in Paris on November 30th. But the issue is as big as the sky.
Europe's air is less corrosive than it once was, and much less foul than China's or India's. Industrial decline and clean-air policies since the 1950s have brought levels of many pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, fine particulate matter (a dust that can irritate lungs), and nitrogen oxides down over the past few decades. Yet more than 400,000 Europeans still die prematurely each year because of air pollution, according to the European Environmental Agency. In 2010 the health-related costs were thought to be between €330 billion ($437 billion) and €940 billion, or 3%-7% of GDP.
Nine out of ten European city-dwellers are exposed to pollution in excess of guidelines produced by the World Health Organization (who). Some of the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide are found in London; several cities in Turkey are choked with high levels of PM10 (particulate matter of at most 10-micron diameter). But some of the worst pollution is in Eastern Europe. Coal-fired power stations are still common there, and some pollutants blow in from the rest of Europe. The commission is prosecuting 18 governments for infringing pollution limits.
Researchers at King's College London have found that a child born in London in 2010 can expect to have his life cut short by nine months as a result of breathing its high levels of PM2.5 - the very finest particulate matter - if pollution levels do not change. Work by Xi Chen of Yale University shows that exposure to high levels of PM10 in China can stunt fetal growth. Preliminary findings from Jonathan Grigg at Queen Mary University in London show that pollution can change the immune systems in children's lungs. The poor suffer most, both because they live in more polluted places and because they are more likely to be unhealthy in general.
Air pollution used to be a visible killer. The "great smog" that accumulated over London in the winter of 1952 was so bad that people had to feel their way home along railings. Thousands died, driving politicians to pass a Clean Air Act in 1956. In the 1970s acid rain caused by burning fossil fuels had an obvious environmental effect, notes Christer Agren of Air Clim, a Swedish research group. But air pollution is now mostly invisible, and the harm it causes is not immediately obvious. As a result, it is not a burning political issue.
Some government efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions have made matters worse. In Britain, diesel cars have been promoted by successive governments because they emit less carbon dioxide than cars that run on petrol. In 2001 only 14% of British cars ran on diesel; by 2014, 36% did. But diesel vehicles emit even more damaging pollutants-and sometimes more than tests suggest, as shown by the discovery that many Volkswagen vehicles had been designed to fool testers.
Another problem is that farmers have resisted much regulation. Emissions from agriculture, such as ammonia, contribute to particulate matter. But politicians - particularly French and British ones - have been loth to impose tougher rules on rural folk. This means that while levels of most pollutants have fallen by around half since 1990, emissions of ammonia have fallen by only a quarter.
There is no strong political drive to tackle air pollution, as there is to cut greenhouse gases. Despite the Volkswagen scandal, new limits for diesel cars have been delayed until 2019. When the European Parliament voted in October to revise air-quality standards, some sources of methane were left out after lobbying by farmers. The revised standards are less stringent than those of the WHO.
While national politicians have dithered, a few local ones have tried to clean up dirty air. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, plans to start charging drivers of older diesel cars £12.50 ($19) extra to enter the city in 2020. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, intends to ban diesel cars entirely by then, and has already tried to limit their numbers. In 2013 Krakow's regional assembly banned coal fires in households (this was deemed unconstitutional, but will be allowed under a new anti-smog law).
But small-scale schemes are useless if other countries fail to act. Pollution is not a local issue: around a third of Britain's dirty air is swept over from the continent. For all the talk of a greener, cleaner future in Paris this month, unless governments act together to cut air pollution, much of Europe will be unable to breathe free.