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The health costs of dirty diesel revealed

Air pollution from road traffic causes damage worth at least €80 billion every year in the EU, with diesel fumes responsible for three-quarters of the harm.

Commissioned by the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), the new CE Delft study (“Health impacts and costs of diesel emissions in the EU”) assesses the current social costs of road vehicle emissions in the EU on people’s health and government budgets, as well as the social benefits of phasing out diesels and switching to electric road and other mobility alternatives, such as public transport, walking or cycling.

There should be tougher EU-level regulation of emissions, said Zoltán Massay-Kosubek, policy manager at EPHA, to the Guardian, but there is also a need for city-based initiatives such as diesel bans, pollution charges and car-free days.

The publication of the report followed the first European Diesel Summit, held in Brussels in November 2018 – three years after the Dieselgate revelations. It has been estimated that NOx emissions from diesel cars and light commercial vehicles caused about 10,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2013, and that half of these would have been avoided had the on-road NOx emissions been at the level of the laboratory tests (see AN 4, 2017).

The inequalities of air pollution are noted by EPHA. Although everyone is affected, the most vulnerable (children, elderly, pregnant women and people with diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases) are suffering more. Those living on low-incomes, more likely to live next to main roads or industrial areas, are exposed to more concentrated air pollution for a longer period of time with a greater impact on their health.

EPHA also points out that the treatment of those costly diseases associated with diesel pollution puts significant financial burden on society, affecting not only individual patients and their carers but also straining national healthcare systems. Ultimately, the social costs of diesel pollution are met by taxpayers, not the car industry.

The main air pollutants from road transport are particulate matter (PM) and NOx. But vehicle emissions also include other pollutants, such as non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and contribute to excessive levels of ground-level ozone.

Using a new method to analyse the total costs of road emission air pollution, the study estimates the total cost for governments and compulsory insurances at €79.8 billion, with 75 per cent of these costs caused by diesel pollution. About 90 per cent of the total costs are linked specifically to health damage. The valuation takes a rather conservative approach by only including health impacts conclusively linked to toxic air, such as heart attacks and lung diseases, and by using the lower economic valuation of premature death (known as “value of a life year” or “VOLY”).

The situation in nine EU member states (Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Spain) is examined in more detail, looking at the levels of national public budgets allocated to health costs related to diesel road vehicle emissions and how much can be saved by their governments through various emission reduction measures.

Air pollution from road traffic is expected to come down significantly between 2016 and 2030, as are the related costs. In the baseline scenario, the total air pollution costs in 2030 are estimated at €25.6 billion, of which €23.3 billion are health related.

In addition to the baseline scenario, two policy scenarios — a low and high ambition scenario — were defined and investigated to assess how additional policy efforts would impact emission levels and related costs in 2030.

Ambitious action by 2030, including two-thirds of new cars being electric or plug-in hybrid and a ban on all pre-2014 vehicles, could cut air pollution costs by 81 per cent compared with today, down to €15 billion per year. This equals annual cost savings of about €10 billion compared to business as usual. The less ambitious scenario, with a quarter of new cars being electric or hybrid by 2030, could cut costs by 74 per cent, down to €20 billion per year. See Figure.

Yves Brand, Vice-President of EPHA said: “It is not an exaggeration to speak about a public health emergency given that air pollution is the number one environmental health risk factor. This is why the European Public Health Alliance felt the urgency to commission this study aiming to bring the often neglected health perspective into the debate. I am confident that these new insights into health costs and the significant savings for national budgets tackling air pollution could bring should leave no doubt about the need for urgent action by our governments.”

Christer Ågren

Link to the EPHA press release and the CE Delft report:

Figure: Comparison of total Air Pollution Costs EU28 in 2016 and 2030 BAU, low and high ambition policy scenarios –adjusted emission factors(TRUE).



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