Health costs of air pollution in European cities and the linkage with transport

This study investigates the health-related social costs of air pollution in 432 European cities in 30 countries (the EU27 plus the UK, Norway and Switzerland). Social costs are costs affecting welfare and comprise both direct health care expenditures (e.g. for hospital admissions) and indirect health impacts (e.g. diseases such as COPD, or reduced life expectancy due to air pollution). These impacts affect welfare because people have a clear preference for healthy life years in a good and clean environment. As a clean environment is not something that can be bought in the marketplace, however, a robust methodology is required to monetize them in order to quantify the wider public health impacts.

In 2018, on average every inhabitant of a European city suffered a welfare loss of over € 1,250 a year owing to direct and indirect health losses associated with poor air quality. This is equivalent to 3.9% of income earned in cities. It should be noted that there is a substantial spread in these figures among cities: in the Romanian capital Bucharest total welfare loss amounts to over € 3,000 per capita/year, while in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain it is under € 400/cap/yr. In many cities in Bulgaria, Romania and Poland the health-related social costs are between 8-10% of income earned. Most of these costs relate to premature mortality: for the 432 cities investigated, the average contribution of mortality to total social costs is 76.1%. Conversely, the average contribution of morbidity (diseases) is 23.9%.

In this study we did investigate the role of city transport in explaining these social costs using econometric methods. Although there is a severe lack of data at the level of individual cities, we do find evidence that transport policies impact the social costs of air pollution. Our results show that a 1% increase in the average journey time to work increases the social costs of PM10 emissions by 0.29% and those of NO2 emissions even by 0.54%. A 1% increase in the number of cars in a city increases overall social costs by almost 0.5%. This confirms that reduced commuting and car ownership has a positive impact on air quality, thus reducing the social costs of poor city air quality.

Our findings provide additional evidence that reducing air pollution in European cities should be among the top priorities in any attempt to improve the welfare of city populations in Europe.