air quality

pollutionThe recent 2016 EU Air Quality Report nicely shows  that air quality in Europe has been improving since 2000 across nearly all indicators. Whenever I can present a graph like the one on the right, I am happy. It makes me smile. I feel things are improving and my kids have a chance at a better future. With all the recent terrible events out there, the rise of right-wing attitudes and the many wars that are still being fought, these are finally good news.

BUT, like oh so many times, there is a catch. In fact, there are two catches.

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Finally it came to my attention as well, this is directly from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), originally published 18 September 2015: vw

EPA is issuing a notice of violation (NOV) of the Clean Air Act (CAA) to Volkswagen AG, Audi AG, and Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. (collectively referred to as Volkswagen). The NOV alleges that four-cylinder Volkswagen and Audi diesel cars from model years 2009-2015 include software that circumvents EPA emissions standards for certain air pollutants…

This results in cars that meet emissions standards in the laboratory or testing station, but during normal operation, emit nitrogen oxides, or NOx, at up to 40 times the standard…

The allegations cover roughly 482,000 diesel passenger cars sold in the United States since 2008.

What is the implication of this?

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In this article I look at air pollution levels within Europe and among the G-20, discuss some of the recent academic research and potential solutions at the national and individual level.

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A new European Environmental Agency report about pollution levels in 2012 just came in. And this may interest my fellow country residents:

Luxembourg is Europe’s ozone pollution beast of 2012!

From the 11 countries that breached air pollution limits, it is Luxembourg that was among the worst, exceeding the ceiling for non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC) as the only European country, and exceeding the mono-nitrogen oxides(NOx) threshold by more than 50%.

NMVOC is a measure for indoor air pollution or smog, while NOx is a compound that arises due combustion (e.g. a measure of pollution through traffic). Both NMVOC and NOx react together nicely to form ozone, and you can check out this post to know what they do to you. And I can tell you: You won’t like what you will find…

However, the good news is that this breach of the regulatory limits occurred only in Luxembourg city. Then again, the bad news are that one-out-of-five of Luxembourg’s residents live in Luxembourg city, and there are roughly 360,000 cross-border workers daily, a large part of them also work in Luxembourg city.

So the solution is obvious: Make driving into Luxembourg city more expensive. This increases incentives to take the train from train stations close-by.The question is: Who really wants that? Is the public transport system up to the task? And when are we going to see a useful and clear response from the politicians that are supposed to deal with this issue?

P1012000The European Union is trying to be the workhorse when it comes to environmental regulations. But despite this it faces, over and over again, the hard constraints it sets itself:

  • Particulate Matter (PM10) In the period 2001-2011, 20-44 % of the urban population in EU-27 was potentially exposed to ambient concentrations of PM10  in excess of the EU limit value set for the protection of human health
  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) In the period 2001-2011, 5-23 % of the urban population in EU-27 was potentially exposed to ambient NO2  concentrations above the EU limit value set for the protection of human health
  • Ozone (O3) In the period 2001-2011, 14-65 % of the urban population in EU-27 was exposed to ambient O3 concentrations exceeding the EU target value set for the protection of human health

So while the basic incentives via different kinds of regulations are set, it seems that policy makers either do too little to improve overall air quality, or cannot control peak concentrations.

While overall trends for air quality tend to improving across the EU, large agglomeration centres, like Paris, are the troublemakers. During most of the year the air quality in even those larger cities meets the European regulation, but when the weather is just right and Parisiens are not on strike or holidays, then air pollution reaches unsafe levels.

Thus, policy makers tend to have trouble to control peak concentrations. In order to control these, a variety of tools are in their toolbox, but they all rely too much on short-term measures.

For example, one of these very short-term measures to curb air pollution is `car number plate alternation’. Basically, if the air quality in some area decreases below a certain threshold, then many countries/cities implement the regulation that only cars with odd number plates are allowed to drive into urban centres on certain days, while cars with even number plates are allowed to drive on the other days.

However, this regulation is implemented if the regulatory thresholds are already crossed. In a sense, this is like going to the dentist when the tooth hurts and not when the semi-annual control demands it.

What is thus needed is a predictive model of air pollution, which is able to say that under certain weather conditions the likelihood that a regulatory threshold will be crossed is sufficiently high so that the regulator can act preemptively.

And this is entirely possible. We now have very detailed data on air pollution, we have a good knowledge of traffic congestion, and we have weather forecasts which are reliable at least for a couple of days ahead. Combining these information should be a simple task and the result could be that a regulator could now act before a threshold is crossed.

Or, in the words of The Hollies:

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