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News > Science and Tech

Earth Hour Day: Poor Hit Hardest by Air Pollution in Europe

  • Cars sit in traffic in Brussels, one of the most congested cities in Europe.

    Cars sit in traffic in Brussels, one of the most congested cities in Europe. | Photo: Reuters

Published 31 March 2019

"To deal with this problem, we have to take the concept of an 'equitable transition' - or 'environmental justice' - seriously," said the European Environment Agency chief.

Coal, old cars, wood-burning stoves - Europe's "serious problem" of air pollution affects its poorest inhabitants despite an overall improvement, European Environment Agency chief Hans Bruyninckx tells AFP in an interview.

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"Over the last three decades, air quality in Europe has improved. Nearly every air pollutant that we look at has diminished - in some cases, drastically. That has been driven by EU policies that have been translated at a country level.

But we still have serious problems. If you look at our calculation of more than 400,000 premature deaths in Europe, that is obviously not a good situation.

It is linked primarily to cars, the mobility system, and the energy system. In Europe, every big city over the course of a year has episodes of bad air quality that often result when transport combines with weather conditions."

Are electric cars the answer?

"We could have seen stronger improvements if we had moved more quickly to a different mobility system. The one we have is, literally, one of the main drivers of air pollution. Even technology improvements (such as better mileage) have been offset by more cars on the road, more kilometres driven. The problem is also behavioural.

In a sustainable mobility system, I think we will always need individual mobility options. But those vehicles need to be zero-emission - electric batteries, hydrogen, I don't think the final decision has been made. And, of course, that electricity should be generated by renewables.

But it's part of a system. If we are all driving down Rue de la Loi (a main thoroughfare in Brussels) in electric cars, we will still be stuck in traffic jams. So it's not just a mobility problem.

That makes us think about ownership: Do I really need to own a thing that weighs two tons and that I only use six percent of the time, with - on average - 1.2 persons in the car? Or do I need easy access to it?"

Why are the poor vulnerable?

"It starts with indoor air pollution, which we don't talk about much in Europe. Poor people tend to live in houses that have poor air quality.

Second, these neighbourhoods tend to be closer to big roads, to industrial facilities where, on average, you have higher measurements of air pollution.

In poorer parts of Europe, people are living in an energy system that is more polluting. They often drive cars that are older - it adds up.

To deal with this problem, we have to take the concept of an 'equitable transition' - or 'environmental justice' - seriously. It is not an abstract notion of ethics. It is a concept that requires serious policy actions.

There are things you can do: keep the traffic away from certain areas, build schools far from heavy traffic lanes, create more green spaces."

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