Tragedy of the Air Common

Air Quality

European and other countries are experiencing very poor air quality. China, as a well cited example, is experiencing far worse air quality making it difficult to travel around Beijing on days when the air quality is particularly bad. Back in Europe there is a National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive which imposes limits on the upper levels of air pollution. Each European Union (EU) Member State has been set an air pollutant emission limit, or ‘ceiling’, for sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH3) and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC). The European Environment Agency (EEA) has shown that countries have exceeded their limits. In 2013 ten Member States exceeded at least one ceiling. NOx have been exceeded regularly due to road traffic emissions. Details can be found on this blog. The ceiling limits do not reflect local scale pollution hot spots. Locally there are concentrations of pollutants that can exceed the guideline amounts as detailed below.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and other pollutants have exceeded the levels set by the European Union in the United Kingdom (UK). The source of the pollutants is typically diesel powered vehicles and transport burning fossil fuels. In April the Supreme Court ruled that the UK Government must prepare and consult on air quality plans for submission to the European Commission by the end of 2015. Two NO2 limit values for the protection of human health were set in the 2008 European Commission Air Quality Directive (2008/50/EC). These are: The annual mean limit value: an annual mean concentration of no more than 40μgm-3 and the hourly limit value: no more than 18 exceedances of 200μgm-3 in a calendar year.

Recently the Government department responsible has released a response to the ruling but it does not fully address the issues of failing air quality standards. There has been a release of “draft zone plans” to manage air quality in particular local areas. The idea is that local authorities will be responsible for policies in their areas. Some of these policies are outlined in the draft plans and seem rather ridiculous in terms of plans. Some examples include:

  • “Reduce health impact of emissions by raising awareness.”
  • Use community engagement to improve understanding of the problem in local communities.
  • Speed traffic flow to reduce the problem.
  • Encourage more walking.

Whilst some of the suggestions would make sense as part of a wider holistic policy the ideas of raising awareness seem to be weak without any action. Some policies encourage the use of park and ride facilities that could increase diesel NO2 emissions whilst trying to reduce them! It is not an easy problem to solve. There does need to be a flexible approach to a problem that is often getting worse and going against the legislation that attempts to enforce a reduction in emissions.

There should be a stronger approach to dealing with the poor air quality that is estimated to kill thousands of people prematurely. The Government suggest that average life expectancy is reduced by six months due to poor air quality. That estimate was based upon particulate pollutants from mainly diesel emissions: tiny airborne particles of soot that are breathed in. The Government tries to quantify and put a monetary value on poor air quality.

Clean Air Zones are suggested as a measure. These could prevent older and more polluting vehicles from entering a given area. Again this approach is rather feeble and should be better considered as part of a more integrated approach to transport planning that should manage the source of the problem: vehicles burning fossil fuels such as diesel in particular. The policy needs to be dynamic for diurnal changes in traffic patterns and also adapting to weather conditions that may make localised problems better or worse. It is a hard policy that will ultimately be unpopular with voters: perhaps these people would enjoy an extra 6 months of life after all?


About mappedit

Geographical practitioner with an interest in climate change, open mapping, sustainability, the transition movement, transport and many other things.
This entry was posted in Air Quality, China, Europe, Sustainable Transport and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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