Traffic-Linked Air Pollution Exceeds WHO Limits Across UK & EU, Raising Health Fears

In a press release, dated the 16th February, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) stated the creation of ‘green zones’ in city centres, focusing on the UK and USA, has not succeeded in reducing nitrogen dioxide (NO2), produced from fossil-fuelled burning vehicles, to levels recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).  

The WHO Global Quality Guidelines (AQG’s) provide recommendations on air quality guideline levels for six key air pollutants. According to the World Health Organisation, these are; ‘particulate matter (PM₂.₅ and PM₁₀), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), sulphur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO).’ Furthermore, the updated WHO recommendations state that NO2 levels should not exceed 25 µg/m3 for 24 hours and 10 µg/m3 for a year, however, this has not been reflected by the Ambient Air Quality (AAQ) Directive of the EU. In fact, the nitrogen dioxide level in the UK and EU are 4 times the WHO recommended guidelines, averaging 40 µg/m3 a year. These updated WHO guidelines levels for these six pollutants can be referenced when decision-makers set legally binding standards for air quality management and international and national levels. 

In 2021, WHO updated its recommendations, aligning them with extensive new research, and the consequences are much more severe than previously thought. The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) claimed that studies on long-term exposure to NO2 can be associated with respiratory and cardiovascular mortality, with attention to children’s respiratory symptoms and lung function. The CREA press release finds that failure to align with the updated WHO ARG’s could result in 250,000 nitrogen dioxide deaths, with 70,000 cases of asthma in children that could be avoided should these recommendations be reflected, in the EU and the UK, in the years to come. In addition, the COMEAP report also recognised that the UK, in 2021, was ‘subject to legal proceedings for failing to meet European Limit Values for NO2’.  

CREA notes that road transportation has produced the largest source for NOx emissions, reaching 37% in the EU during 2020, and 28% in the UK. Other forms of transportation accounted for only 13%. CREA, therefore, concluded that the impact on public health, associated with road transportation, would be significantly higher in areas of high population density, including urban areas. 

On February 14th, the European Parliament endorsed the ban on the sale of CO2-emitting cars and light commercial vehicles in 2035. This seems like a suitable response to the current failure to meet WHO recommendations and the EU’s ‘Fit for 55’ package, however, Erika Uusivuori (Europe Analyst at CREA) claimed this new legislation is not enough, stating Lawmakers need to be more innovative with finding solutions to reduce transport-related emissions.  

Finally, the CREA press release outlined some suggestions for the EU and the UK to help lower the risks of nitrogen dioxide-related deaths and improve air quality in urban areas. CREA stated the European Commission needs to commit to the WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQR) when revising the AAQ Directive. In addition, the EU should place stronger emission standards for stationary sources in the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), and the UK should also follow through with existing air quality policies.

According to a UK House of Commons research briefing, the UK government is required, under the Environment Act 1995, to produce a national air quality strategy, and publish a National Air Pollution Control Programme in 2019. In addition, CREA also suggested that, despite the ban of new sales on cars and light commercial vehicles with combustion engines by 2035, the EU needs to set more ambitious targets to increase the number of electric vehicles and alternative fuel engines, with electric charging stations to be expanded to cover all European roads. In 2022, 70% of these charging stations existed in only three countries. According to Intertraffic, 2021 saw 224,237 electric vehicle charging stations present in the EU, with the Netherlands containing 66,665, France with 45,751, and Germany containing 44,538 EV charging points. 

In 2021, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA), The European Consumer Organization (BEUC), and Transport and Environment released a statement claiming that in order to meet the objective of the European Green Deal, one million charging points in 2024 and three million in 2029 for passenger car and light commercial vehicles need to be implemented within the EU.