A Coal Ban and Planting Trees Could Help Save 50,000 Lives in Europe

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A new study estimates that reducing air pollution could prevent over 50,000 deaths in Europe per year. One of the authors has since said that banning domestic coal and wood-burning would help improve air quality, along with planting more trees and adding green spaces to urban areas.

The study, which was published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health earlier this month, highlighted cities as particular hotspots for air pollution and disease. The research indicates that compliance with air pollution guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) could prevent 51,213 premature deaths annually.

WHO recommendations include that fine particulate matter (PM2.5) not exceed 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air, while nitrogen dioxide (NO2) must not exceed 40 micrograms. Despite this, WHO data confirms that 9 out of 10 people are currently exposed to air exceeding these limits. It also indicates that low and middle-income countries experience the greatest exposure.

Air pollution is one of the leading causes of illness around the world. According to the WHO, excessive exposure to air pollution causes approximately seven million premature deaths every year. This is primarily as a result of increased mortality from serious health conditions such as stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory conditions.

UK-based charity Cancer Research confirms this and states that both indoor and outdoor pollution can increase the risk of cancer and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Some studies have also linked exposure to air pollution to a higher COVID-19 mortality rate.

According to the new study, the “mortality burden score” is hugely variable from location to location. It estimated that the highest number of preventable pollution-related deaths took place in cities in northern Italy, Southern Poland, and the eastern Czech Republic. Diverse sources contribute to this pollution, including traffic, industry, and domestic fuel burning.

How can we reduce pollution?

Governments around the world can support the reduction of pollutants by tightening regulations, updating legislation, and enforcing rules that restrict excessive polluters. Simultaneously raising the tax on pollutants while subsidizing sustainable alternatives could also encourage a shift away from fossil fuels and other problem areas.

Study co-author Sasha Khomenko said: “We need an urgent change from private motorized traffic to public and active transportation; a reduction of emissions from industry, airports, and ports; a ban on domestic wood and coal burning and planting of more trees in cities, which will make cities not only healthier but also more liveable and sustainable.”

As individuals, conserving energy in the home or at work is a key way to reduce air pollution, and minimizes the generation required by power plants. Using sustainable forms of transport such as cycling, walking, trains, and buses also helps to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

Recycling supports cleaner air, too. According to the European Environment Agency, recycling glass, paper, batteries, engine oil, and aluminum cans, in particular, can reduce the volume of waste that gets incinerated by up to 70 percent.

What we eat also has a significant impact on air pollution. And meat and dairy production — particularly on factory farms — produces pollutants at almost every stage, from feed production to the ammonia, methane, and CO2 produced by the animals themselves. Because of this, swapping animal products for plant-based foods can significantly reduce personal contributions to air pollution.

Liam writes about environmental and social sustainability and the protection of animals. He has a BA Hons in English Literature and Film.

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