According to the EEA’s Air quality in Europe – 2016 report, 467,000 people died prematurely in 2013 due to air pollution. With over 430,000 due to PM2.5 and 71,000 from NO2 (there is a certain level of cross over). In the UK, air pollution overall costs the economy more than £20bn per year – just under 16% of the NHS’s annual £116bn budget.

A report conducted jointly by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle in 2016 concluded that premature deaths due to air pollution are costing the global economy $5.1tn annually.

This is roughly twice the economic output of the UK, with more than half of that burden falling on China and other developing economies in Asia. More than 90% of those premature deaths attributed to air pollution occurred in developing countries with children under 5 in lower income countries 60 times as likely to die from exposure to bad air as in high-income countries, according to the report.

The welfare losses in Europe and Central Asia (a region that includes developing economies such as Russia) accounted for $1.2tn of the global cost, while North America represented $495bn of the losses.

The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined brain tissue from 37 people in Manchester and Mexico, aged between 3 and 92. Abundant particles of magnetite, an iron oxide toxic to the brain, was found in the tissue and abnormal accumulation of these brain metals is a key feature of Alzheimer’s disease. While this raises concerns, the new work is still a long way from proving that the air pollution particles cause or exacerbate Alzheimer’s.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in the first major attempt to calculate both the human and financial cost, found that air pollution causes 712,000 premature deaths a year in Africa and costing £364bn. This premature death figure is compared to approximately 542,000 from unsafe water, 275,000 from malnutrition and 391,000 from unsafe sanitation.

This could develop into a health and climate crisis reminiscent of those seen in China and India, and the study stresses that there is not nearly enough knowledge of the sources of air pollution and its impact in much of Africa.

London’s air pollution problem is still far from solved. Progress has been made on some pollutants, for example levels of carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide in London have dropped by 80% since 1996. There has been some progress in reducing PM and NO2 pollution, but levels still remain high. Analysis by Policy Exchange of data from air quality monitoring sites shows that the most polluted parts of London have levels of NO2 nearly four times the legal limit. It is also estimated that over 12% of London’s area was in breach of NO2 limits in 2010, with the most affected areas being Central London, the area around Heathrow airport, and other major transport routes.

There has been limited progress in reducing NOx levels since the early 2000s, both in London and in the UK generally. The failure to control NOx emissions is largely due to the growth in the number of diesel vehicles, combined with the failure of vehicle emissions standards to control emissions from diesels. Diesel cars now make up over 50% of all new cars sold in the UK, and 36% of the total car fleet (up from 7% in 1994), as well as being almost ubiquitous in the van, truck and bus fleet. Government policy has created incentives for people to switch to diesel, based on the CO2 advantage of diesel vehicles compared to petrol (albeit that this advantage has now been eroded). However, diesels emit much higher quantities of local pollutants than petrol vehicles.

Research shows that despite the introduction of progressively tighter vehicle standards (“Euro standards”), there has been limited improvement in NOx emissions from diesels over the last 20 years. The latest Euro 6 diesel cars show some improvement on previous models, but there is still a gulf between how they perform on the road and the official Euro 6 standards. A range of studies have shown that real world NOx emissions from the latest Euro 6 diesel cars are some 2.5 to 7 times the legal limits. The ongoing saga concerning Volkswagen’s use of illegal “cheat devices” during vehicle emissions tests is an exemplar of the failure of emissions standards. However, whilst other manufacturers have not used cheat devices, the vast majority of diesel cars still fail to match up to emissions standards on the road, particularly in urban driving conditions. By contrast, the evidence suggests that the latest Euro VI standard for heavy goods vehicles and buses has led to a significant reduction in NOx emissions.

The most recent air quality projections for London (which formed part of the evidence base for the ULEZ proposal) show that even with the current suite of policies, London is unlikely to achieve compliance with air quality limits by 2025. Indeed, the models show that 42sq km of London (an area equivalent to the size of Westminster and Camden combined) would still be above legal limits in 2025. In this scenario, the health impacts of air pollution would be significantly reduced, but not eliminated completely.

Overall this implies that current air quality projections should be treated as a best case scenario, and progress may well be slower. A programme of additional policies and solutions will be required in order to fully address London’s (and the UKs) air pollution problem.

Extract edited from ‘Up In the Air: How to solve London’s air quality crisis – Part 1‘, Policy Exchange, 2015

Nine out of 10 people on the planet breath polluted air, even outdoors, the World Health Organisation stated in 2016. Around three million deaths every year are linked to outdoor air pollution and the south-east Asia and western Pacific regions account for nearly two out of every three such deaths.

Urban Traffic Management Control (UTMC)

Is a computerised systems being used throughout the UK and globally to improve the flow of traffic in towns and cities. They are designed to link communications between various components of traffic management, such as traffic signal control, air quality monitoring, car park management and bus priority. Where these systems are optimised, congestion has improved

Road space rationing (also known as alternate-day travel, driving restriction, no-drive days)

Is a travel demand management strategy aimed to reduce urban air pollution or peak urban travel demand in excess of available supply or road capacity, through artificially restricting accessibility to the roads, especially during the peak periods or during peak pollution events. This objective is achieved by restricting traffic access into an urban cordon area, city centre, or district based upon the last digits of the license number on pre-established days and during certain periods, usually, the peak hours.

Congestion pricing

Transport economists consider road space rationing a variation of road pricing, and an alternative to congestion pricing, but road space rationing is considered more equitable by some, as the restrictions force all drivers to reduce auto travel, while congestion pricing restrains less those who can afford paying the congestion charge. Nevertheless, high-income users can often avoid the restrictions by owning a second car. Moreover, congestion pricing (unlike rationing) acts “to allocate a scarce resource to its most valuable use, as evinced by users’ willingness to pay for the resource”. While some “opponents of congestion pricing fear that tolled roads will be used only by people with high income. But preliminary evidence suggests that the new toll lanes in California are used by people of all income groups. The ability to get somewhere fast and reliably is valued in a variety of circumstances. Not everyone will need or want to incur a toll on a daily basis, but on occasions when getting somewhere quickly is necessary, the option of paying to save time is valuable to people at all income levels.”

Mobility rights or congestion credits

A more recent idea for automobile travel restrictions, proposed by some transport economists to avoid inequality and revenue allocation issues, is to implement a rationing of peak period travel but through revenue-neutral credit-based congestion pricing. This concept is similar to the existing system of emissions trading of carbon credits, proposed by the Kyoto Protocol to curb greenhouse emissions. Metropolitan area or city residents, or the taxpayers, will have the option to use the local government-issued mobility rights or congestion credits for themselves, or to trade or sell them to anyone willing to continue traveling by automobile beyond the personal quota. This trading system will allow direct benefits to be accrued by those users shifting to public transportation or by those reducing their peak-hour travel rather than the government.

Low Emission Zone or Ultra Low Emission Zone (LEZ or ULEZ)

Is an area within which all cars, motorcycles, vans, minibuses, buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) will need to meet exhaust emission standards or pay a daily charge to travel (can be combined with techniques discussed above).


Transport solutions

Take public transport or carpool

A good solution for longer journeys may be public transport or carpooling, since more people can be transported in a single vehicle. If a car is chosen rather than the train or bus, for instance, it will generate several times more ozone pollution and up to 30 times more CO2 emissions.

Walk or use the bike

45% of the ozone precursors and 38% of the particulate matter emitted in Europe comes from transport. On average, one out of three journeys we do by car is only to go as far as 2 km. Replacing a car ride by walking or using the bicycle not only helps reduce traffic but also emissions.

If you have to use your car…

  • Ensure correct tyre pressure – if the pressure is down by 0.5 bars, the car needs 5% more fuel and also gives off more pollution
  • Driving with the air conditioner turned on increases fuel consumption by 30%; driving with windows open only increases it by 5%
  • Letting a car warm up while stationary can make it consume up to 50% more fuel – stop idling vehicles
  • Using a roof rack on a car can increase fuel consumption by 20 to 30%. Bicycles are better attached to the back of the car.
  • When buying a car, be careful to check its fuel economy. An environment-friendly car will use less fuel and produce less exhaust fumes. Economic incentives can be used to encourage this decision.

Heating, electricity and home solutions

In the UK and London – one of the key sources of air pollution is domestic and commercial heating, therefore reducing heating and electricity consumption will also help reduce pollution levels. Some behavioural changes could include:

  • Conserve energy – remember to turn off lights, computers, and electric appliances when not in use.
  • Use energy efficient light bulbs and appliances.
  • Run dishwashers and clothes washers only when full.
  • Choose environmentally friendly cleaners.
  • Use water-based or solvent free paints whenever possible and buy products that say “low VOC”.
  • Seal containers of household cleaners, workshop chemicals and solvents, and garden chemicals to prevent volatile organic compounds from evaporating into the air.

EU policies to reduce air pollution and improve air quality have a long tradition in delivering tangible results. However, a decade ago, significant challenges remained or emerged anew which required a more integrated and ambitious approach. The 2005 Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution (TSAP) of the Commission, coming from the 6th Environmental Action Programme (6EAP), provided a comprehensive EU policy framework for the period up to 2020. At the time, it was concluded that no technology scenarios existed that would enable reaching the ultimate objectives stated in the 6EAP. Consequently, “interim objectives” for air quality were established for the period up to 2020.

To reach these interim objectives, sector specific priorities for EU action were identified building on the existing EU legislative body on air quality as well as on sector-specific product and process regulations addressing individual emission sources.

Since the adoption of the TSAP in 2005, most of the outlined measures have been implemented. Those include the streamlining of existing air quality directives in 2008 with the introduction of new air quality limit values for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and a tightening of emission limit values from different transport sources. In addition, the revision of the Industrial Emissions Directive allowed the inclusion of important new rules for emissions from industrial installations. Finally, most measures taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as those contained in the 2008/9 Climate Change and Energy Package, are also set to yield important pollutant emission reductions. These together with the decision by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to amend the maximum sulphur content of fuels used by the maritime shipping sector are expected to contribute further to improving regional and local air quality.

The 2005 TSAP announced, among other actions, a revision of the NEC (National Emissions Ceilings) Directive in order to align the ceilings with the 2020 TSAP objectives and in particular to introduce a ceiling for particulate matter. Originally foreseen for 2006, the review was postponed to account for the outcome of the negotiations on the Climate Change and Energy Package. A subsequently planned review and revision in 2008 was again delayed due to concerns over implementation difficulties and subsequently because attention being drawn towards focussing in addressing the economic crisis.

The current policy efforts, at EU and national level, have not fully delivered the expected results. Limit and target values of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone are exceeded in many urban areas and global emission of nitrogen oxides (NOx) are not decreasing as much as expected. One of the reasons is the increase in transport volume, the gap between regulated emission limits in type approval and the “real world” emissions and the slower turnover of vehicles fleets (meaning that older vehicles which are often more polluting are staying on the road for longer). Prompt action is required to further reduce air emissions linked to the most problematic pollutants such as particulate matter, ground-level ozone, and nitrogen dioxide. Preparatory work to update the Thematic Strategy and associated measures such as the review of the Ambient Air Quality Framework Directive and the revision of the NEC Directive is to resume without delay with a view of adopting an up-to- date clean air strategy package no later than 2013.

Extract edited from: ‘Commission Staff Working Paper on the implementation of EU Air Quality Policy and preparing for its comprehensive review‘, European Commission, 2011