While the country debates the merits of staying or leaving the European Union ahead of June’s referendum, a new study suggests that EU legislation introduced between 1970 and 2010 has resulted in technological improvements and new ‘end-of-pipe treatment measures’ in the energy, industrial and road transport sectors. These have led to reduced European annual mean concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) by 35 per cent when compared to what the levels would have been had such legislation not existed. The outcome, claims the study, is the prevention of an estimated 80,000 premature deaths from pollution-related illnesses annually across the EU.
‘Air pollution is a trans-boundary problem that does not recognise national borders,’ explains Steven Turnock, a PhD student at the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, and lead author of the report. ‘The improvements in human health shown in this research have been achieved by European countries acting together.’
The study simulated the quantities of key air pollutants which would have entered the environment across Europe in a scenario where various EU legislation had not existed, and compared it to present day quantities. It found that emissions of sulphur dioxide, black carbon, and organic carbon were respectively 53 per cent, 59 per cent and 32 per cent lower in 2010 than they would have been without the legislation. The researchers then used relationships between the amount of air pollution and impacts on human health to attribute the number of lives saved due to the improved air quality.
The relevant policies adopted by the EU include improvements in fuel quality, the adoption of European emissions standards in transport, as well as technological advances such as the introduction of particle filters and catalytic converters. The study calculated a perceived financial benefit to society of $232billion (€213billion or £166billion) annually.
‘EU policy has dramatically improved the health of European citizens,’ emphasises co-author Professor Ken Carslaw, also from the University of Leeds. Nevertheless, the prevention of an estimated 80,000 premature deaths is still only a minority of the hundreds of thousands still affected by air pollution. ‘To put this number in perspective,’ Carslaw says, ‘in 2011 just slightly in excess of 400,000 premature deaths were attributed to particulate air pollution over Europe.’
The EU’s Air Quality Directive issues acceptable limits for PM2.5 emissions, which were missed by 12 London boroughs in 2010, rising to 25 in 2011, then dropping to seven by 2013. 2010 saw 3,500 premature deaths in London as result of exposure to PM2.5 emissions (down from 4,300 in 2008), in addition to a further 5,900 deaths associated with long-term nitrogen dioxide (NO2) exposure.
Study co-author Dr Dominick Spracklen, also from the UoL, said: ‘Our work shows that EU policies have improved air quality. If the UK were to exit the EU, our air quality policy would no longer be subject to EU legislation, with potential implications for future air quality. Regardless of the UK’s position in the EU, it is vital that we continue to reduce air pollution emissions to ensure future air quality and the health of the British public.’