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Air pollution in China (Photo: Reuters).
Image: Reuters

Industrial air pollution

Charlotta Lomas / hf
November 27, 2014

Air pollution is not only unhealthy but also expensive. Hans Bruyninckx of the European Environment Agency tells DW why. His agency's recent report shows staggering annual costs as a result of relatively few companies.


The European Environment Agency (EEA) has recently published a report on industrial facilities and what they cost the European Union.

Over a period of five years they took a closer look at 14,000 facilities in Europe - either industrial production plants or power stations - and measured their damages to the environment and health due to air pollution and greenhouse gases. The major finding: One percent of these plants - which means about 150 facilities - cause 50 percent of the overall damage.

DW spoke with the EEA's executive director to talk damage control.

DW: What are the most destructive facilities in Europe?

Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director European Environment Agency (Photo: EEA).
Hans Bruyninckx is the Executive Director at the European Environment AgencyImage: EEA

Hans Bruyninckx: If you look at the "Top 30" companies in Europe, the most polluting companies, 26 of those are power facilities, and are coal fired or lignite fired, which we find in Germany and in eastern Europe primarily. And we have a couple of large industrial facilities: steel factories, or in the chemical and petrol sector. And that's the bulk of the most polluting companies. They are spread throughout Europe if you look at the "top 1 percent," but with a fairly high concentration in Germany and Eastern Europe.

Are they in breach of required emission levels?

We don't make any claims on whether these facilities are operating within the European legislation - that would be another analysis. We're just calculating the costs to health and the environment. What you can say is that the current rules and regulations in Europe on air pollution do not guarantee that citizens live in air that falls below the levels or the quality that is recommended by the World Health Organization.

How did the report measure the damage?

Over a five-year period we gathered the emissions data from these facilities and we looked through models at the estimated costs for health care and the environment. We used a number of indicators, for example premature death, hospital costs, lost workdays, damage to buildings, reduced agriculture or yields - those sort of factors.

So what is this costing European taxpayers?

Greenhouse gas emissions and industrial air pollution cost anywhere between 60 billion and 190 billion euros ($75 - $240 billion) a year for European taxpayers. Because the costs are there - they are not absorbed by those who cause the costs but in general by society. And this means we put financial burdens on our healthcare systems, we put financial burdens on families - because they have less healthy children, adults are less healthy - we put costs on our food system because we have lower agriculture yields …. So that is the kind of damage we're talking about.

It is important to note that this is only 20 percent of the air pollution in Europe. In addition to that, we have the impacts of traffic for example, the impacts of agriculture, we have the impact of a number of other processes, that we did not study here.

You looked at information dating back to 2008. What sort of trend are we seeing?

We see a slight improvement in the damage from air pollution in Europe, at least from industrial air pollution and greenhouse gases. Why is that? Because, on the one hand, you have legislation that is moving sectors in the right direction, and that's putting pressure on the government and industrial facilities to perform better. And at the same time, we see that the number of the older installations - especially in the power sector - are being replaced by more modern and efficient installations that pollute less. So overall there is a trend in a good direction.

What more needs to be done? What are the report's recommendations?

First of all, a stronger emphasis on moving the regulation in the direction of health concerns. This could be a serious step forward, and that is exactly that what we have in the [legislative] air package that is on the table in Brussels.

And a second thing would be a stronger push to go to best available technologies when it comes to industrial facilities, but also to the energy sector. If you think long term of a de-carbonized European economy - a low-carbon economy - we know that, over time, we will have to move away from the highest-polluting energy production methods, and those obviously include heavy coal and lignite. So a push to move away from those would definitely a very positive step forward.

How promising is this air package on the table in Brussels?

The current air package that is being discussed politically in Europe is trying to move the limits and the regulations into the direction of guarantying a healthier environment for European citizens.

Hans Bruyninckx is Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA), Copenhagen.It's an agency of the European Union. Its task is to provide sound, independent information on the environment.

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