Air pollution has negative impacts on human health and the environment, and industry is one of the main contributors to air pollution in Europe. How do we estimate the costs of industrial air pollution on society? What do the numbers tell us? We asked these questions to Martin Adams, who leads the group working on air pollution, transport and noise at the European Environment Agency.

What is the EEA’s new report on industrial air pollution about?

We’ve consistently reported over past years that while emissions of air pollutants have declined in Europe over the past decades, poor air quality still continues to harm our health and the environment. For example, we know it can aggravate respiratory diseases, reduce productivity through lost work days, it decreases agricultural yields and harms our wider environment by contributing to eutrophication and acidification.

However, it’s not easy to measure or estimate the impacts of air pollution. Some pollutants are released into the atmosphere from diffuse sources such as transport and others from location specific sources, such as industrial facilities. Adding to the complexity, is of course that air pollution travels in the atmosphere, so what is emitted in one place can cause harmful impacts a significant distance away. For example, earlier this year Paris experienced an episode of high particulate matter pollution. But a significant source of this pollution came from agricultural sources away from the city. In a similar context, industry is also one of the main contributors to air pollution in Europe.

The report that we published last month uses existing models and methods to estimate a monetary damage cost caused by air pollution from industrial facilities in Europe. We looked at emissions from more than 14 000 facilities in Europe, and for each one, we estimated the damage costs to health and the environment. Collectively, we found that their emissions cost society and the economy at least EUR 59 billion and up to EUR 189 billion in 2012.

The report is called ‘Costs of air pollution from European industrial facilities 2008-2012’ and is available on the EEA’s website, as well as extracts of the main results.

Are there variations between countries and sectors?

We found that the power generation sector was responsible for around 70% of the total damage costs from industry. Of the top 30 facilities causing the highest damage, 29 were power-generating facilities, mainly fuelled by coal or lignite and located predominantly in Germany and eastern Europe. After power generation, production facilities such as iron and steelworks, and manufacturing facilities were the next most important.

We also saw big differences among EU countries. Not surprisingly, large countries such as Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, France and Italy, all of which have many large industrial facilities, contributed the most to total damage costs.

However, looking just at country and facility sizes can be somewhat misleading. For instance, a large facility using the best available technology might be considerably cleaner than a number of smaller, less efficient facilities producing the same amount of output. In this light, when we take into account the economic output generated by the countries, it is clear that facilities in eastern European countries are often causing relatively higher damage costs.

One of the other interesting findings is that, over a five year period, half of the damage costs occurred as a result of emissions from only 147, or 1% of the 14000 facilities we looked at. This isn’t to say though, that regulations should focus just on controlling pollution from these very large plants. We know that emissions from smaller facilities can contribute significantly to local air quality problems, which is why there are European regulations in place covering a wide range of industrial sources. 

Is this the whole story of costs of air pollution in Europe?

Not at all. As mentioned earlier, industry is only one of the contributors to air pollution, responsible for around 20-30% of the total damage costs due to air pollution according to recent work from the European Commission.

It’s also important to recognise the significant social and economic benefits of industrial activities, such as jobs, goods and services. To give an example, power facilities generate the electricity we all use, they provide an important source of local employment, and operators pay taxes to local and national governments. It is also important to say that we did not assess whether a facility’s emissions are consistent with its legal requirements to operate.

Where does the data come from?

At the EEA, we receive official air pollution data reported by all countries across Europe. The emissions data used in this report come from the European Pollutant Release and Transfer (E-PRTR), which contains information about pollutants released each year to air, water, and soil, by around 24 000 of the largest facilities in Europe. E-PRTR was established in 2006 and has successfully helped improve public access to environmental information.

Using data sources such as E-PRTR, the EEA produces a number of reports to support environmental policy making in Europe. As well as those that focus just on air pollution, such as this cost of air pollution report or our annual Air Quality report, we also prepare integrated assessments such as the EEA’s upcoming SOER2015 – European Environment: State and Outlook report.

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Last modified: January 15, 2021