Traffic: Blocking Our Roads, But More Importantly- Blocking Our Airways

Philipp Stein

By Philipp Stein, on April 4th, 2014

> Read Philipp Stein's articles

In a statement to the Observer newspaper (23 March, 2014) Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment  , said that “poor air quality is the top environmental cause of premature deaths in the EU, causing more than 100,000 premature deaths annually and representing more than €300 billion per year in extra health costs”

Still, under the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive , within which EU Member States are assigned individual emission limits, the 2012 survey confirmed that several countries including Austria, Belgium, France and  Germany have persistent problems in meeting their national emission limits. Reasons for concern as the World Health Organisation identifies air pollution  as the world`s largest single environmental health risk, a serious causal factor in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and cancer.

Air Quality Is Not A Priority Issue For EU Citizens And Policy Makers

However, although scientific research is clear on the real challenges to human health, concern for air quality does not seem to be a priority issue on the radar of many EU citizens and policy makers. This is especially surprising when we consider the disproportionate impact of particulate matter, for instance, on urban populations. Only recent global alarm signals, news headlines announcing the types of measures taken in Paris and Belgium to limit traffic or reduce vehicle speeds in response to “dangerous” levels of air pollution ,  seem capable of fixing our attention on this issue. Or is it simply annoyance at the inconvenience caused?

The Transport Sector Really Is A Major Source of Air Pollutants

It was no mistake that transportation found itself in the firing line when visible smog settled on the French capital  and high levels of invisible pollutants were registered in Brussels spring sunshine earlier in March of this year. While poor air quality is a by-product of almost all economic and societal activities the transport sector is a major source of a wide range of gaseous air pollutants and suspended particulate matter.

Estimates suggest that road transport alone contributes about one fifth of the EU`s total emissions of carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) and around 40% of NOx and is the most important source of nitrogen dioxide and benzene emissions in our cities. Exhaust pipe discharge of primary particles account for up to 30% of fine particulate matter in urban areas and this is compounded by the presence of coarser particulates generated by road dust, tyres and brake linings. When we consider that some 64% of all travel kilometres are made within urban environments and individual vehicle mobility still represents a dominant 55% share of modal split in the EU, then the ongoing and incremental consequences for urban populations are grave indeed.

The question of air quality and the linked goal of the EU transport white paper to eliminate conventionally fuelled vehicles (internal combustion engine) in our cities by 2050 is key motivation for the city partners of the URBACT EVUE project – Electric Vehicles in Urban Europe. The Project partners (London, Frankfurt, Katowice, Suceava, Beja and Oslo) plan to produce a series of advisory notes in the first quarter of 2015, one of which will cover the theme of Environmental Issues. It is understood that e-mobility is not the only potentially positive measure (green vehicles, low/no emission zones, improved integrated public transport…) but there is a growing dynamic driven by EU legislation, car manufacturers and leading cities such as Oslo, to move electric vehicles out of their current niche market. The EVUE Pilot Delivery Network continues to explore the challenges faced in attempting to establish a strong European market for electric vehicles, which could play an important role in achieving healthy and sustainable urban mobility patterns.

Mitigation Is The Only Option In This Case

While this year`s UN climate report permits itself the luxury of considering both mitigation and adaptation to deal with climate change – in respect of road transport and its real impact on environmental health, mitigation is the only option. Combined structural solutions are required, not simply the sort of sticking plaster on a wound reaction to days of temperature inversion or when pollution levels suddenly pass an arbitrary limit.

Some French commentators asked if the pollution experienced in March actually originated in Germany, and of course ambient levels of air pollution have an even wider source pattern. However there can be no discussion, despite difficulties of making completely accurate calculations, that eliminating emissions from vehicle exhaust pipes could make a significant improvement to the air quality mix at the local city level. Progressively cigarette smoking has been  outlawed in public places across Europe. In the UK the debate has now started to ban cigarette smoking in private vehicles or at least in those transporting children. Conversely we seem strangely slow to change behaviour in respect of our mobility choices. Could it be that citizens/consumers generally feel as powerless as some national and local policy makers to effectively confront the fossil fuel lobby?

For readers interested in this particuliar topic, we recommand reading The Environmental Impacts of Transportation – Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue – The Geography of Transport Systems, New York, 2013.

By Philip Stein, alumni Thematic Pole Manager and current Lead Expert of EVUE II project.

One Response to “Traffic: Blocking Our Roads, But More Importantly- Blocking Our Airways”

  1. Javier says:

    Many thanks for the article. Indeed air pollution is an alarming problem of which, from the time being, people seem to be unaware.

    But greener cars alone are not the solution, as said here: and here

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