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Europe’s Airpocalypse

European policymakers like to lecture the rest of the world on air pollution, with Asia, and China in particular, a favorite target for criticism. They would be well advised to spend a lot less time talking and a lot more addressing the problem at home.

SINGAPORE – European policymakers like to lecture the rest of the world on air pollution. Asia, and China in particular, is a favorite target for criticism. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if no major environmental conference is complete without a presentation by European policymakers on their continent’s supposed “best practices,” which the rest of the world should emulate. When it comes to air pollution, however, Europe might consider doing less talking and more listening.

Air pollution is a growing concern across Europe. The World Health Organization has called it the continent’s “single largest environmental health risk,” estimating that 90% of Europe’s citizens are exposed to outdoor pollution that exceeds WHO air-quality guidelines. In 2010, some 600,000 European citizens died prematurely because of outdoor and indoor air pollution, and the economic costs have been put at $1.6 trillion, roughly 9% of the European Union’s GDP.

London and Paris suffer from particularly severe air-quality problems. Nitrogen dioxide levels in some parts of London regularly reach 2-3 times the recommended limit. In the United Kingdom, air pollution kills some 29,000 people a year, putting it second only to smoking as a cause of premature death. Paris may be even worse off; in March, after air-pollution levels surpassed Shanghai’s, the city imposed a partial driving ban and introduced free public transportation.

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