The toll of fossil fuel air pollution: A case for clean transportation

On 14 February 2023, the European Parliament voted to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel CO2-emitting cars as of 2035, making headway in the EU’s “Fit for 55” package and the transition to climate neutrality by 2050. Urban areas across the EU and the UK are also increasingly establishing measures to reduce road traffic and create “green zones” in city centres. These measures, however, to date, have not succeeded in reducing the harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions produced by fossil fuel burning vehicles to levels recommended by the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The latest briefing from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) reveals the consequences of not aligning emissions regulations with the WHO Global air quality guidelines (AQG) on the health of populations in urban areas.

Road transportation was the largest source of NOx emissions (37%) in the EU in 2020, followed by agriculture (19%) and the manufacturing and extractive industry (15%). The sector represented 28% of all emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions in the UK in 2020, while other forms of transportation, including aviation, rail, and shipping, only accounted for 13%. The impact on public health of road transportation emissions is therefore greater as much of it occurs in urban areas where population density is high, which results in high levels of human exposure. Currently, the EU and the UK are the only jurisdictions that have responded to the updated WHO guidelines by announcing some sort of explicit policy action. Yet, our research finds that across UK and EU capital cities, while emissions from transportation have decreased, concentrations of NO2 continue to exceed the updated WHO guidelines and the annual mean NO2 concentrations exceeded the WHO guideline value in all EU27 and UK capitals in 2022.

According to the updated WHO recommendations, the NO2 levels should not exceed an average of 25 µg/m3 for 24 hours and 10 µg/m3 for a year. However, these changes have not been updated and reflected in the Ambient Air Quality (AAQ) Directive (2008/50/EC) of the EU, or in the National Air Quality objectives of the UK. The guideline value for yearly average NO2 concentrations in the EU and UK are 40 µg/m3, whereas the WHO health-based guideline value is 4 times lower (10 µg/m3).

The briefing finds that not aligning regulations with the WHO 2021 AQG translates into over 250,000 NO2-related deaths and 70,000 cases of asthma in children that could be avoided should the EU and the UK achieve the WHO 2021 AQG.

Policy recommendations

In light of the gravity of the implications on the health of resident populations exposed to NO2 concentrations exceeding the WHO 2021 AQG, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) therefore suggests the following policy recommendations:

  • the European Commission follow through on its commitment to adhere to the WHO Global air quality guidelines (AQG) when revising the Ambient Air Quality Directive;
  • the European Union include stronger emission standards for stationary sources through the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) revision;
  • the UK follow suit in revisions of existing air quality policies; 
  • more ambitious targets be established for the uptake of electric vehicles and alternative fuels;
  • the electric charging station network be expanded to cover all European roads; currently 70% of charging stations exist in only three countries;
  • the upcoming Euro 7 emission standards be implemented as soon as possible, and reflect the criticisms made on measurement and leniency, especially regarding NOx emissions from diesel cars;
  • air quality standards be more stringent to reflect that over 200,000 Europeans may be saved annually from NO2-related deaths by aligning European standards with the 2021 WHO Ambient Air Quality Guidelines. 

Erika Uusivuori, Europe Analyst (CREA); Ronja Borgmästars, Research Assistant (CREA); Vera Tattari, Research Assistant (CREA); Lyder Ulvan, Research Assistant (CREA)