Are policy initiatives improving air pollution in Europe’s two megacities? A new study, slated for publication in the June 2019 edition of Environmental Pollution, suggests that while nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels are decreasing, at current rates roads in Paris will need 20 years to achieve EU targets and roads in London will need 193 years (1).
Air pollution is a major health risk. The impact of dirty air on health is higher in Europe ― much higher than previously thought ― compared to the global average, according to another recent study (2). As a result, almost 800,000 people die prematurely from respiratory and cardiovascular death each year in the European Union. Chronic exposure to air pollution can lead to heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, and respiratory disease, among other adverse effects.
Of course, this varies significantly between countries. For example, it is estimated that dirty air leads to 154 early deaths per 100,000 people in Germany with an average reduction in life expectancy of 2.4 years; whereas, in the UK these figures are 98 deaths premature deaths per 100,000 and reduced lifespan of 1.5 years.
A number of policies ― both Europe-wide and local ― are currently in place to address the air quality problem in European cities. But are they working?
A tale of two cities
The team of researchers from the UK and France sought to determine the impact of policies designed to reduce air pollution from urban traffic in Europe’s two megacities. To do this, they examined trends in the concentration of nitrogen oxides (NOX) and particulate matter between 2005–2016 and assessed the impact of traffic trends and emissions standards. They found that
- Concentrations of NO2 and particular matter from traffic decreased from 2010–16 in both cities.
- The Euro 5 standards on diesel cars and vans are responsible for a large part of the decline in particulate air pollution.
- Newer diesel lorries and buses manufactured after 2009 decreased traffic NO2 emissions.
- An increase in motorcycles in London since 2010 may have increased roadside particulate matter concentrations owing to less stringent exhaust standards applied to motorbikes. This may have cancelled out some of the improvements made by other vehicle types.
Still, Europe is lagging
In Europe, the dense population and poor air quality expose many citizens to potential health damage ― the effects of air pollution on health are higher than the global average. Although there have been improvements in NO2 and particle concentrations across both cities since 2010, the reductions are not enough to meet the standards (legal limits) set out by the European Union.
The findings suggest Europe is headed in the right direction as air pollution due to traffic is on a downward trajectory. However, stronger policies and further legislation are still needed to improve upon this. Moreover, fossil fuels will need to be replaced with clean energy sources to significantly reduce the adverse health effects of air pollution.
(1) Font, A. et al. A tale of two cities: is air pollution improving in Paris and London?
Environmental Pollution (2019). DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2019.01.040
(2) Lelieveld, J. et al. Cardiovascular disease burden from ambient air pollution in Europe reassessed using novel hazard ratio functions. European Heart Journal. DOI: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehz135