The European Union and some of its member states are failing to integrate air quality issues into their national climate plans and fail to recognize the impact of air pollution on health, according to research published by the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA).
After analyzing 169 countries and the EU in their postponement published on Wednesday (18 October), the GCHA found that G20 countries, which include the EU, are still lagging behind when it comes to integrating health and clean air into their climate action.
The report looked at Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – national climate plans set by governments as part of their commitment to the Paris Agreement, which illustrate national climate change priorities.
Points were awarded to countries based on whether the NDCs addressed air pollutants, source sectors, economics and finance, health impacts, and additional points.
The European Union scored a total of 2 points out of 15 possible according to the GCHA benchmarks in various categories, and France, which also submitted an individual score, scored below the EU average. Overall, the situation is no better with an average rating of 3.5.
The best-performing countries were low- and middle-income countries – which suffer the highest exposure to air pollution – with Colombia and Mali joint global leaders on the issue.
“As major global polluters, it is crucial for G20 countries to incorporate air quality considerations into their NDCs, but no G20 government achieves even a halfway mark – indicating a lack of recognition of the links between climate and air quality or ambition to act” , said Jess Beagley, head of policy at the Global Alliance for Climate and Health.
“It’s also telling that the countries that want to take the biggest action on air pollution are often the ones that bear the biggest burden,” Beagley added in a press release.
While almost all -164 out of 170- NDCs mention air quality, less than a third refer to the impact of air pollution on health, and only 32 set targets or refer to monitoring.
In the health impact category, the mention of the impact of air pollution on health, any quantification of the burden or monitoring of the impact, and the actions of the health sector in response to these diseases were assessed. In the category of health, the EU received 0 points.
Colombia scored all points in the health category as an NDC recognizes the importance of protecting health, especially the respiratory system, by affecting air quality. It also states that the integration of policies that facilitate this monitoring will be formulated within the health sector.
Bonus points are awarded to those NDCs that mention the WHO Air Quality Guidelines, the number of lives saved by improving air quality and inequalities in air pollution exposure, among others.
Health burden in the EU
According to European Environment Agency (EEA), 307,000 premature deaths in Europe were caused by exposure to microscopic particles, 2.5 microns in diameter or less (PM2.5), making air pollution the number one environmental cause of early death in the EU.
This pollution can come from a variety of sources, including road traffic, coal-fired power plants or industry, and increases the risk of health problems such as heart disease, asthma and low birth weight.
Apart from PM2.5, other harmful pollutants include nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which, according to the EEA, is responsible for 49,000 premature deaths in the EU.
According to the Agency, 97% of the urban population in 2021 was exposed to air that did not meet WHO recommendations.
EU efforts to improve air quality
Despite the poor result of the study, the European Union has several initiatives aimed at improving air quality.
The European Parliament adopted it on September 13 position on a revised law to improve air quality in the EU, calling for stricter limits on several pollutants.
The new rules aim to ensure that air quality in the EU is not harmful to human health, natural ecosystems and biodiversity and will be accompanied by information on symptoms associated with air pollution peaks and associated health risks for each pollutant, including information tailored to vulnerable groups.
Parliament also wants citizens whose health is impaired to have a greater right to compensation in case of violation of the new rules.
However, lawmakers also voted to delay EU compliance with WHO air quality guidelines by five years until 2035, raising concerns among environmental NGOs.
The next step is the so-called trialogue – negotiations in which the EU member states, the European Commission and the Parliament try to find a common position.
(Prepared by Giedrė Peseckytė/Zoran Radosavljević)