Europe’s air­poca­lypse

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Euro­pean pol­i­cy­mak­ers like to lec­ture the rest of the world on air pol­lu­tion. Asia, and China in par­tic­u­lar, is a favourite tar­get for crit­i­cism. In­deed, it some­times seems as if no ma­jor en­vi­ron­men­tal con­fer­ence is com­plete with­out a pre­sen­ta­tion by Euro­pean pol­i­cy­mak­ers on their con­ti­nent’s sup­posed “best prac­tices,” which the rest of the world should em­u­late. When it comes to air pol­lu­tion, how­ever, Europe might con­sider do­ing less talk­ing and more lis­ten­ing.

Air pol­lu­tion is a grow­ing con­cern across Europe. The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion has called it the con­ti­nent’s “sin­gle largest en­vi­ron­men­tal health risk,” es­ti­mat­ing that 90% of Europe’s cit­i­zens are ex­posed to out­door pol­lu­tion that ex­ceeds WHO air-qual­ity guide­lines. In 2010, some 600,000 Euro­pean cit­i­zens died pre­ma­turely be­cause of out­door and in­door air pol­lu­tion, and the eco­nomic costs have been put at $1.6 trln, roughly 9% of the Euro­pean Union’s GDP.

Lon­don and Paris suf­fer from par­tic­u­larly se­vere airqual­ity prob­lems. Ni­tro­gen diox­ide lev­els in some parts of Lon­don regularly reach 2-3 times the rec­om­mended limit. In the United King­dom, air pol­lu­tion kills some 29,000 peo­ple a year, putting it sec­ond only to smok­ing as a cause of pre­ma­ture death. Paris may be even worse off; in March, af­ter air-pol­lu­tion lev­els sur­passed Shang­hai’s, the city im­posed a par­tial driv­ing ban and in­tro­duced free public trans­porta­tion.

Sadly, Europe’s pol­i­cy­mak­ers do not seem up to the chal­lenge. Ge­orge Os­borne, the UK’s chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer, has ar­gued against Bri­tish lead­er­ship in the fight against cli­mate change. “We are not go­ing to save the planet by shut­ting down our steel mills, alu­minum smelters, and pa­per man­u­fac­tur­ers,” he de­clared in 2011.

Os­borne is not alone. With Euro­pean politi­cians ar­gu­ing that in­tro­duc­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal safe­guards will hurt the EU’s al­ready-weak­ened econ­omy, it comes as lit­tle sur­prise that mea­sures to limit air pol­lu­tion fall far short of the mark. The EU’s pro­posed stan­dards reg­u­lat­ing toxic emis­sions from coal plants are even less strict than China’s, Green­peace re­ports. Yet var­i­ous Euro­pean politi­cians have called for wa­ter­ing them down even fur­ther, with Hungary sug­gest­ing that they be scrapped al­to­gether.

To be sure, air pol­lu­tion lev­els in Asia are truly wor­ri­some. The con­ti­nent is home to nine of the world’s ten most pol­luted coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to Yale Univer­sity’s 2014 Air Qual­ity Rank­ing. New Delhi is ranked as the most pol­luted city on earth, with air pol­lu­tion ex­ceed­ing safe lev­els by a fac­tor of 60. Ow­ing to Bei­jing’s un­healthy air, for­eign com­pa­nies pay a “hard­ship bonus” of up to 30% to em­ploy­ees work­ing there.

But at least pol­i­cy­mak­ers in Asia have recog­nised the prob­lem and are tak­ing steps to ad­dress it. China, for ex­am­ple, has de­clared a “war on pol­lu­tion.” By 2017, Bei­jing – once dubbed “Greyjing” by the in­ter­na­tional media – will spend some CNY 760 bln ($121 bln) to com­bat air pol­lu­tion.

At the heart of China’s mea­sures are im­proved public trans­porta­tion, green trade, and a re­vi­sion of the energy mix. The gov­ern­ment has de­cided to in­stall bus stops ev­ery 500 me­tres in city cen­tres, re­duce tar­iffs to 5% or less for a list of 54 en­vi­ron­men­tal goods, and de­com­mis­sion many out­dated and in­ef­fi­cient coal plants. The share of non-fos­sil fu­els in pri­mary energy con­sump­tion is ex­pected to in­crease to 20% by 2030. These tar­gets are likely to be rig­or­ously im­ple­mented, given strong po­lit­i­cal sup­port from the very top.

Mean­while, in In­dia, the state gov­ern­ments in Gu­jarat, Ma­ha­rash­tra and Tamil Nadu are about to launch the world’s first cap-and-trade schemes for par­tic­u­lates. In­dia’s Supreme Court even sug­gested an ex­tra charge on pri­vately owned diesel ve­hi­cles in New Delhi.

Other parts of Asia are also tak­ing steps to im­prove air qual­ity. Viet­nam aims to con­struct eight ur­ban rail lines in the com­ing years. Bangkok, which has been tack­ling air pol­lu­tion since the 1990s, has planted 400,000 trees. And Ja­pan is of­fer­ing sub­si­dies for hy­dro­gen cars and cre­at­ing new pedes­trian-only ar­eas.

Europe, as one of the world’s wealth­i­est re­gions, ought to be at the fore­front of the ef­fort to pro­mote en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity. When it comes to air pol­lu­tion, how­ever, Europe’s pol­i­cy­mak­ers should stop preach­ing to oth­ers and fo­cus on fix­ing their own prob­lems.

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