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Environment

Air Pollution: London Is the Worst City in Europe for Health Cost of Car Emissions

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN’s Global Goal 11 calls for the creation of sustainable cities and communities, including ensuring that citizens are protected from poor air quality. But at least 400,000 people die prematurely from air pollution every year across Europe  — and in Britain, the costs are reportedly higher than anywhere else on the continent. Join our movement and take action on the environment here.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that a country’s physical and economic health go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other.

Whenever an employee falls ill, there’s a cost: not just to the welfare of that person, but also in potential health care, or a loss in working hours. If a population is in bad health, it can’t have a thriving economy; and if a country falls into a deep recession, its health inevitably suffers.

So when the very air we breathe is filled with all sorts of nasty stuff, there’s going to be a price to pay — and across Europe, it appears that people in London are especially overdrawn.

According to the largest study of its kind from CE Delft, a Dutch consultancy firm that specialises in innovative environmental solutions, the health costs of air pollution from car emissions in England’s capital city are higher than anywhere else across the continent.

It examined data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Eurostat — the statistical office of the European Union — and discovered that the social cost to London stood at €11.4 billion (£10.3 billion). That’s almost double the level of Bucharest, in Romania (£5.75 billion), and more than twice that of Berlin, Germany (£4.75 billion), the second and third worst ranked cities.

You can view the full league table on the website of the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), a network of European health care charities, where the results were published on Wednesday.

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The study measured the value of health costs caused by particulate matter, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide. Across all 432 cities in 30 countries, residents lost a total of €166 billion (£151 billion) every year — or €385 million (£349 million) on average per city.

The findings revealed that air pollution costs the average European city resident €1,276 (£1,160) per year, slightly less than the average cost to each London citizen (£1,175), albeit in a city with the third highest population across the continent. The larger the city, the higher the pollution.

In fact, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has said that air pollution is the leading environmental cause of premature death in Europe, prematurely killing 400,000 people every year — almost double the number of deaths from COVID-19 recorded in the UK so far this year.

However, other research has suggested the true figure on air pollution deaths could be twice the reported number, meaning more people die from air pollution in Europe than smoking. Worldwide, nearly 500,000 babies died within the first month of their life because of poor air quality, according to the State of Global Air 2020 report.

For London, air pollution causes nearly 9,500 early deaths a year, according to separate research from the Royal College of Physicians, and roughly 40,000 premature deaths across the whole UK annually. 

When judged by WHO standards, 99% of the capital city is experiencing illegal levels of air pollution. That’s despite a reported 94% reduction in the number of people living in areas with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide since Sadiq Khan became Mayor of London in 2016, according to the Guardian.

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All of this comes with a cost. In this study, diesel cars were highlighted as a key cause of illegal pollution levels, while a 2018 report found that, on average, every car in London costs the National Health Service (NHS) £8,000.

“Our study reveals the magnitude of the damage toxic air is causing to people’s health and the huge health inequalities that exist between and within countries in Europe,” said Sascha Marschang, the acting secretary general of the EPHA. “To a large extent, the situation can be influenced by transport policies and cities can reduce costs by switching to zero-emission urban mobility.”

“Governments and the European Union should bear these costs in mind for transport policy in order to support, not to hinder, a healthy recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Marschang added.