Global Warming is a key threat to the survival of life on earth, but more directly and immediately, air pollution caused by carbon emissions, is responsible for millions of billions of deaths around the globe, leading air pollution expert at the UCC Environmental Research Institute (ERI) John Sodeau has said.
Over 400,000 early deaths were caused by air pollution in Europe alone in a single year (2016) it was revealed in a recent report from the European Environment Agency as a result of emissions from road transport, domestic solid fuel burning and agriculture.
In contrast, 400,000 deaths is more than 10 times the deaths recorded for road accidents in 2016.
Professor Sodeau emphasised the impact of air pollution on us all.
“Nobody escapes the effects of air pollution as it leads to a reduction in life expectancy for all of us, mainly by cardio-problems, lung cancer, diabetes, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and many others including miscarriage.
“Almost every day there are reports on the effects of air pollution on our health. This week, one major research study carried out in England showed that many more heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks were recorded (resulting in hospital admission) on days with poor air quality.
Professor Sodeau said just as the invention of motorized transport about 150 years ago transformed society, the realisation of what carbon emissions are doing to humans and the planet, must also lead to a shift in societal norms.
“In the 1880’s, instead of using human and horse leg power to get from A to B we became able to use liquid fuel to take us and our goods wherever we wanted.
“Unfortunately the enormous popularity of driving these days coupled with a good understanding of the complicated reactions that occur when we burn carbon-containing chemicals such as petrol, diesel, coal, peat and wood in the air has transformed our view of road transport and solid fuel burning from a blessing to a curse.
“The main outcomes of using diesel- and petrol-powered vehicles are now well-known: air pollution and global warming,” the professor of Chemistry said.
According to a 2016 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in Ireland, transport accounts for around one-fifth of carbon emissions with agriculture accounting for a third.
Professor Sodeau said the Government needs to do more.
“Dublin thought it has solved its air pollution problem in the 90s when it banned smokey coal. Everything cleared up but since in the 20 years that passed we have realised that it is the invisible particles like the nitrogen dioxide, all of which come from burning carbon in the home or in cars and trucks, that they are the real health problem and these small particles can get in everywhere into the smallest cell and cause all types of problems the main one being cardio,” Professor Sodeau said.
“The problem in Cork is we have a poor public transport system and a good public transport system is essential.” The air pollution expert said.
Another key element of cleaning up the air quality is electric vehicles.
“It doesn’t get rid of congestion to have electric vehicles, but it does get rid of those nasty particles and nitrogen dioxide, so they are a real advantage to have.,” Professor Sodeau said.
“The nirvana ought to be great public transport and people being encouraged to cycle and walk.” Pedestrianisation is another important aspect to consider, The St Patrick’s Street ban, what happened there, you have to convince shopkeepers there is another way of making money “Maybe the day of the big shop is gone and it is all online now?
“What they are doing in some places is they are putting shops and gyms side by side and restaurants to make it a ‘come to’ place, so the underlying concept is that a shopping experience into the city has to change and a lot of this has to do with changing mindset but people have to learn and accept that air pollution is a killer.
Green Party Cobh Councillor Alan O’Connor, who holds a degree in Environmental Science, said the crux of the issue is how we plan our settlements, and how we spend money on our transport infrastructure.
“We must address sprawl, and invest in our public transport and active transport infrastructure if we’re to escape car dependency.
“If we can tackle the issue of car dependency, I think we’ll go a long way towards making transport in this country more environmentally friendly.” Mr O’Connor said there is an increase in environmentally aware policies in planning and transport, however the Green Party Councillor said, it is not yet being put into practice adequately.
“There is still a huge and ongoing investment in road infrastructure, as well as mooted projects with car-dependency baked-in, such as the large out-of-town retail outlet centre on the N25 corridor (for which public consultation is currently underway).
“The exploratory study for the proposed retail outlet centre predicted that 90% of its visitors would be travelling there by private car, putting between 4,500 and 6,500 more cars on the road there every day. In the aviation sector, we saw recent expansion of Dublin Airport. We can’t afford to continue developing along these lines.” In terms of electric cars, Professor Sodeau said that while they reduce the amount of air pollution in towns and cities, it is a long way from solving the problem of relying on fossil fuels.
“Road safety issues are secondary to air pollution. Road safety doesn’t mean what it traditionally means, air pollution is poisoning your children. This is a big problem that needs to be dealt with.
“Clean public transport as in electric is another key element. However you have cars, you still have congestion, it doesn’t solve that problem, and in Ireland, because our electricity is generated by coal and peat that means that our electric is fuelled by something that gives off carbon and greenhouse gases. That’s not good, you have to change that electrification.” In terms of Global Warming, things aren’t looking good as the world needs to reach net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 in order to give ourselves a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.
Based on current trends, globally, the world may arrive at 1.5 degrees in only 11 years.
As the world heats up the outlook for food security, wildlife and human health becomes increasingly worse.
Professor Sodeau said significant changes are required at a Governmental and societal level.
“I think the mentality of the people is that you have got to convince them from their souls as much as from their brains and their pockets that in war times you have to pay and there are different changes to lifestyle.
“A lot more people do agree that climate change exists, that is good. It is not great that the president of the united states doesn’t appear to, however whenever matters are put forward like the carbon tax which is there to change people’s behaviour and to invest in the chicken and egg thing to put more electric vehicles on the road, they don’t want to pay an extra tax.
“They do believe in Climate change and they do believe there will be problems but they don’t want to pay for it and that is why my bottom line is the mental attitude has to change.”