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Working at the Research Priority Area Sustainable Chemistry of the University of Amsterdam (UvA), MSc student Cedric Koolen and Prof. Gadi Rothenberg have made an analysis of air pollution in Europe. In a concept article that has just been published by the leading journal ChemSusChem they present recommendations for mitigation of the most common pollutants including a cost/benefit analysis. They conclude that mitigation of NOx emissions by the stationary combustion sector (including public heating) would reap the most gains in lifespan and reduction of healthcare costs.

Image: HIMS/pxhere

Koolen and Rothenberg collected and analyzed the latest data on air pollution from the EU as a whole as well as from the individual member states. They quantified the contribution of ammonia, NOx, SOx, non-methane VOCs, and particulate matter in terms of years of life lost per capita. In their paper in ChemSusChem they now explain the connection between the various pollutants and their effects on human health and the environment.

Koolen and Rothenberg used two metrics, the level assessment and the trend assessment. Using a cost/benefit analysis, they propose that source-specific emissions can be reduced cost-effectively by choosing the pollutant where mitigation efforts would reap the most gains in workforce and reduction of healthcare costs. Such a sector should (a) have a sizeable contribution to the whole, and (b) pose a danger to public health and environment.

Air pollution has been called the new tobacco, but it’s actually much worse. People can decide whether to smoke or not, but they cannot hide from the negative effects of air pollution. It’s in the air we breathe. Image:HIMS/pxhere

Focus on NOx emissions

According to the researchers, the emission of NOx by the stationary combustion sector, which includes public heating, is by far the most suitable sector. It contributed 31% to the total emissions in 2014 (roughly 2 million tons). Moreover, the contribution to the whole grew by 13% compared to the base year. Rothenberg: "This suggests that current legislation is no longer effective towards this substance. NOx results in the loss of 700 thousand life years annually in the EU. On top of that, it causes significant damage to our environment by acidifying soil and ground water."

The researchers estimate that NOx emissions amount to an estimated 100-300 billion euros cost for the EU. They show that abatement of 10-20% above the level prognosed for 2020 can be achieved cost-effectively. For reduction up to 360 kilotons per year and beyond, additional innovations are required for cost-effective implementation.

Millions of life years lost

To Rothenberg, who embarked on this research after visiting polluted cities in the developing world, the results were staggering: “You might think that air pollution is something that you only see in the news about far away countries, in congested cities like Delhi, Beijing or Mexico City, but this is not true. In the European Union alone, 7 million life years are lost annually due to the effects of air pollution. It causes premature death and lung disease, destroys ecosystems and ruins harvests. Our lives are on average seven months shorter due to air pollution. It has become one of the biggest social and environmental problems we face today.”

Air pollution also incurs a large economic burden. The number and the length of hospitalizations is directly linked to it. This weighs substantially on our healthcare system. Rothenberg: "The problem is of course that fighting air pollution also has economic consequences. The main polluting sectors are transportation and energy production and consumption, so reducing their activity can put a strain on the economy. However, in our article we conclude that further reduction of NOx emissions is the most urgent and most beneficial. By improving ambient air quality, NOx abatement will benefit both the public and the environment. As the technology required for NOx reduction advances, the gains in workforce and healthcare savings from NOx abatement will outweigh the costs of implementation.

Publication details

C.D. Koolen and G. Rothenberg, Air Pollution in Europe, ChemSusChem, 2018, published online. Open Access. DOI: 10.1002/cssc.201802292

Blog by Gadi Rothenberg on this research

Research priority area Sustainable Chemistry