Nathalie Roebbel (WHO): “Urban pollution causes seven million premature deaths a year”

  • The Madrid City Council, alongside Berlin and the region of Lombardy, presented the plans implemented to tackle urban pollution and improve air quality at an event where the WHO warned that 91% of the global population inhales polluted air.
  • Poor air quality in the EU represents an annual cost of €24 billion according to Daniel Calleja, Director-General for the Environment at the European Commission.

“The combined effects of outdoor and domestic air pollution cause around seven million premature deaths every year due to an increase in cerebrovascular accidents, heart diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections.” At a seminar organised by the Naturgy Foundation in Brussels, the coordinator for Air Pollution and Urban Health at the WHO, Nathalie Roebbel, used these figures to warn of the consequences of air quality in cities.

Roebbel stressed that 91% of the global population inhales polluted air and more than 3 billion people cook with polluting energy sources in their homes. “Cities around the world are growing rapidly and for this reason policies to improve urban air should address the increased exposure of people who live in urban areas,” stated Roebbel.

The WHO representative underlined the need for global leadership, coordination between the different sectors of society and intergovernmental organisations, national and local plans and, above all, health to be the focus of all urban policies. She called on public institutions to invest more in preventative measures, which currently account for 4% of public health spending.

In this regard, María Eugenia Coronado, Managing Director of the Naturgy Foundation, said: “There is not one single solution to try to mitigate pollution in cities, which primarily comes from road traffic, therefore it is essential to carry out an in-depth analysis of every urban area in order to apply the best measures that enable the desired reduction of emissions of pollutants to be achieved.” She also highlighted the need to establish suitable measures for every city based on the cost-benefit ratio and the expected results, as well as other factors including geographic and weather conditions, the habits and needs of inhabitants and alternative technology and fuel, meaning greater sustainability in each case.

Meanwhile, Daniel Calleja, Director-General for Environment at the European Commission (EC), who participated in the opening of the seminar, emphasised the improvement of air quality in urban areas through actions at a European, national, regional and local level, and also by the private sector. Calleja noted that the poor air quality in the EU causes 400,000 premature deaths and represents a cost of €24 billion per year. He also stated that air quality is the second-highest concern for EU citizens, behind only climate change. That is why the European Commission has initiated a regulatory assessment process of the environmental legislation.

The cases of Berlin, Lombardy and Madrid

The head of Air Quality Management in the Department of the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection of Berlin, Martin Lutz, presented the results of the “No diesel without a filter” programme, which has considerably reduced the level of particles in the German capital. However, he explained that despite their efforts, Berlin continues to try to comply with the air quality regulation for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), just like many other large cities in Europe. He also referred to the breach of the EU’s emission control regulations for diesel vehicles and the growing pressure to act quickly as a result of the sentences of the German courts and the infringement proceedings initiated by the EC against Germany.

“Berlin complies with the particles limit, but given the growing evidence regarding the effect of even lower levels of pollution on health there remain good reasons to adopt new levels to reach the WHO’s safest reference levels in 2030,” stated Lutz.

Lutz highlighted some key measures of Berlin’s new air quality plan, which was presented to the public just two weeks ago. In addition to emergency measures such as access restrictions for diesel vehicles that exceed the NO2 limit, the plan tries to apply measures that suit the whole city again in order to reduce the amount of NO2 in 2020 and to change urban transport, moving from private vehicles to healthier modes of transport that are compatible with the city.

Guido Lanzani, head of the Air Quality Unit in the Environmental Protection Agency in the Region of Lombardy, explained that the orographic and weather conditions of the region create some very poor dispersion conditions and “despite a significant trend to reduce emissions over a few years, the daily limit of particles and the annual limit of NO2 are often exceeded.”

“Road traffic is the main source of nitrogen oxide emissions in the entire Po valley, while wood burning is responsible for 44% of the emissions of particles,” explained Lanzani. “We have set the foundations for reducing this source of pollution with a classification of heaters, a progressive ban on the use of the worst sources and increasingly ambitious requirements for new installations,” he said. He also placed an emphasis on the programmes of “informing and raising the awareness of the population that have already been implemented”. With the air quality plan implemented in the region of Lombardy, “in 2050, it is expected that the regulations regarding particles and NO2 will be fully respected.”

Meanwhile, the Deputy Director of Energy and Climate Change in the Department of the Environment and Transport in the Council of Madrid, Juan Azcarate, explained that the Madrid Plan for Air Quality and Climate Change (Plan A) aims to promote cleaner vehicles in key sectors that have a significant impact on the emissions from road traffic. “Transport is the main source of atmospheric pollution and direct greenhouse gas emissions in cities, and Plan A includes actions and tools for moving towards low-emission transport, which will enable Madrid to reach the air quality and climate objectives,” he stated.

Azcárate explained: “In addition to the measures focused on the redistribution and management of public spaces, such as the Low Emissions Zone in central Madrid, which covers 480 hectares, and the opening of more cycling and pedestrian areas, the development of alternative-energy vehicles is a transversal action.” In this regard, he highlighted the incorporation of new vehicles to the municipal fleets. As an example, he explained that 65% of the bus fleet, 1,340 buses, are powered by natural gas, 40 buses and minibuses are electric and that, in 2019, 35 more electric buses are expected to be incorporated.

As part of Plan A, “we have a local commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from road traffic in 2030 by 50% compared to 2012,” asserted Azcárate.

Naturgy Foundation and its mission to raise awareness in society

This seminar is part of the training activities that the Naturgy Foundation conducts on matters relating to energy, technology and the environment through specialised seminars and publications. The aim is to encourage a discussion that is consistently based on the knowledge of experts in different fields who explain to the public the implications of using energy efficiently, as well as the importance of this in our lives.

With the seminar in Brussels, the Naturgy Foundation begins a new phase of international conferences in Europe having organised seminars in Spain and Latin America for 25 years.