Air pollution is now the “biggest environmental risk” to public health in Europe, causing an estimated 400,000 premature deaths a year, and most EU countries are failing to meet air quality standards set 20 years ago, a damning report by the EU Court of Auditors has found.
The failures cost “hundreds of billions of euros in health related costs”, but the huge impact of toxic air has not been reflected in action to reduce emissions, the report says.
EU air quality guidelines are often “much weaker than the World Health Organisation guidelines and what the latest scientific evidence suggests,” it adds.
“Air pollution is the biggest environmental risk to health in the European Union,” said Janusz Wojciechowski, the member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report.
“In recent decades, EU policies have contributed to emission reductions, but air quality has not improved at the same rate and there are still considerable impacts on public health,” he said.
Particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ground level ozone are the air pollutants responsible for most of the early deaths, and the authors said there is a risk pollution levels are underestimated because air quality is often not measured adequately.
People in urban areas are particularly exposed to health problems including respiratory disease, cancers, liver and blood disease and cardiovascular disease, the report says.
In addition, the report notes measures the European Commission has taken against countries which breach emissions limits have not been effective.
“Despite the Commission taking legal action against many member states and achieving favourable rulings, member states continue to breach air quality limits frequently,” the auditors said.
Labour’s deputy leader in the European parliament, Seb Dance, said the government had not made enough effort to meet EU limits, and said the Conservatives were not leading a “green Brexit.”
Writing on Twitter he said: “The UK government has repeatedly ignored its commitments under EU law. The idea Brexit will improve its record is preposterous.”
He added: “This government is a danger to our health.”
Yoann Le Petit from Transport and Environment, an organisation campaigning for cleaner transport in Europe, said: “The new report is yet another wake-up call for the EU to seriously tackle the air pollution crisis we face every day.
He added: “Too many member states put their efforts into hiding the real extent of the problem from their citizens rather than cleaning up the air.”
The paper calls for more funding to be made available for combatting air pollution, with the caveat that the funded projects are “well targeted.”
It also says effective action by the European Commission needs to be taken and for an update to the 2008 Ambient Air Quality Directive must be made, as well as prioritising air improvement measures in EU member states policies and increasing public awareness.
The report comes as a cross-party group of 132 MPs and 52 peers have called on the UK government to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.
The current target is to cut emissions by 80 per cent by the same year.
In a letter organised by Conservative MP Simon Clarke, and whose signatories include Ed Miliband, Sir Vince Cable, Justine Greening and Caroline Lucas, the politicians write: “Setting ourselves the goal of net zero emissions will put us at the forefront of the race for investment in clean industries, creating jobs all around the UK and inspiring the next generation.
“A net-zero emissions target, fully implemented, will cut energy bills by improving the efficiency of our homes and businesses, it will get rid of the exhaust pipe emissions that pollute the air we breathe, and it will help to bring about the restoration of our natural habitats so they become stores of carbon, from forests to peatlands.”