The costs of air pollution

WHO.air pollution cost

The WHO report published earlier this week entitled Economic cost of the Health impact of air pollution in Europe. Clean air, health and wealth is an eye opener to many who have shut their eyes to the link between environmental and health impacts.

This follows the OECD publication last year of another publication entitled The Costs of Air Pollution.  Health impacts of road transport.

The WHO report concludes that the impact of air pollution on health is substantial both in terms of premature deaths as well as in economic terms. The data quoted by the report compares the years 2005 and 2010. In terms of premature deaths the numbers are approximately stable at 228 deaths in 2010 being attributable to excessive particulate matter in the air.

The costs, on the other hand, vary with time and increase substantially. It is estimated that, in 2010, the economic cost to Malta of air pollution stood at €550 million.

It can be safely stated that in the absence of heavy industry in Malta, land transport is the major contributor to air pollution. To this one must add local contributors in specific locations, namely :  the Delimara Power Station through the use of diesel and HFO, ships in the areas close to ports as well aircraft exhaust in areas close to the airport where aeroplanes take-off or land.

Technological advances relative to fuel efficiency have, over the years, improved the situation though a lower contribution to poor air quality by individual vehicles, ships or aeroplanes.

Unfortunately this has been more than compensated for by the exponential increase in cars on the road. At the time of writing, the latest available statistics indicate that at end 2014 there were 335,249 vehicles on our roads –  an increase of 12,289 over the previous year. Most of that increase is in the passenger car category which, at end of 2014, amounted to 265,950 vehicles or 79.33% of the total number.

This number of vehicles on our roads is excessive: at peak hours even our main roads are clogged.

This state of affairs has developed gradually throughout the years as a result of the neglected state of public transport in Malta. The half-baked reforms of public transport over the last few years have not made matters any better and it will take much longer for public transport to gain the custom of Maltese (and Gozitans) to the extent that there will be a quantifiable impact on our roads.

An efficient public transport system will, in fact, be the major contributor to a reduction of air pollution but the benefits will be multiple. More efficient roads will be the most obvious benefit. This will be accompanied by a substantial reduction in respiratory illnesses and consequently less time lost by working men and women away from their work and by students from their studies.

An efficient public transport would also mean that less money would have to be spent on improving our road system through the construction of by-passes and flyovers.

All this shows that investing in public transport will pay dividends when it comes to the state of the nation’s health.  Why has it taken so long to realise such a basic truth?