Photo by Marcus Henttonen and Pactrica Esteve
In his recent documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, former US presidential candidate Al Gore warned that global warming is the single biggest challenge facing the planet. The war people are waging on the environment, he said, is far more of a threat than the war being waged by terrorists. If that’s the case, Spain needs to send in troop reinforcements. The nation is amongst Europe’s top five ozone polluters and is the country furthest from meeting Kyoto protocol targets. As one of its most industrially developed regions, Catalunya has the undesirable reputation as one of the worst polluters in the EU.
Over the past 20 years, Spain hasn’t exactly been at the forefront of environmental protection. It wasn’t until 2005 that the first laws on curbing greenhouse gas emissions were passed by the government. As Spain enjoyed a steady economic boom throughout the Nineties, the environment paid the price, by being a particularly low priority of the Partido Popular’s political agenda. “Spain’s rapid economic growth is the main reason for its terrible environmental record,” says Lucia Artazcoz of the Catalan Public Health Agency. “The country has developed very quickly over the past couple of decades, and this has meant increasing numbers of cars on the road. Levels of pollution have therefore rocketed, especially in the most affluent regions, such as Catalunya.”
Of most concern to public health is the increase in carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the major causes of global warming. A report by environmental organisations and trade unions published in 2005 found that CO2 levels in Catalunya are now double what they were in the Nineties, and nearly 40 percent higher than the limit laid down by the Kyoto Protocol. “The dangers of ozone depletion over the earth are well documented,” according to Marc Saez of Girona University’s environmental research unit.
“In the stratosphere—10 to 50 kilometres above the earth’s surface—ozone protects life on Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Nearer the earth’s surface, human activities, mainly road transport in Catalunya’s case, is creating ozone concentrations several times higher than natural levels. In high concentration, ozone can cause serious health problems and damage ecosystems. When combined with other air pollutants, such as nitrous oxides, it can be lethal, often forming a harmful smog. This smog can irritate airways, cause breathing difficulties and damage lungs after only a few hours of exposure.”
Mounting numbers of studies are blaming such contamination for rising levels of asthma, heart problems and allergies, as well as contributing to deaths caused by cancer. The European Environmental Agency estimates that up to 30 percent of Europe’s urban population is exposed to ozone concentrations above the threshold levels set by the EU. These ozone concentrations are said to be responsible for as many as 20,000 deaths in Europe every year, reducing the average lifespan by almost nine months. On a world-wide scale, the World Health Organisation says that 2.3 million deaths last year were caused by atmospheric pollution. The Spanish Environment Ministry estimates that about 12 million people breathe highly polluted air nationwide and highlights the fact that during summer, a visible smog can be seen hanging over Spain’s major cities. Recently, a study on rats by scientists at New York University concluded that air pollution causes a variety of cardiovascular illnesses.
In Catalunya, the Generalitat's Environment Ministry calculates that 98 percent of CO2 pollution is caused by road transport, with the remainder attributed to heat generation plants, household heating, industry and other petrol emissions. In Tarragona, increased traffic has caused CO2 levels to reach unprecedented highs. A local study carried out by the Grup de Recerca en Estadística, Economia Aplicada i Salut (GRECS) found that CO2 levels were 60 times the recommended European limit around central Tarragona. A separate study in the town carried out in the late Nineties found a worrying correlation between the number of emergency admissions for cardiovascular diseases and the corresponding level of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Surprising as it may sound, it is often the costas and countryside that suffer more from pollution in the major urban centres. “The highest concentrations of ozone are not necessarily always found in city centres such as Barcelona where the pollutants that form ozone are usually emitted,” said Miguel Muñiz of Ecologistes en Acció de Catalunya, who has conducted an in-depth report into the spread of ozone pollution. “This is because of the abundance of nitrogen oxide from traffic, which often suppresses ozone formation. As this oxide may be transported by the wind over distances of 400 to 500 kilometres a day, ozone depletion often occur in coastal, suburban and rural areas far away from the source of the pollutants.”
In an attempt to work out the true extent of air pollution, the Generalitat has set up its own Air Pollution Monitoring and Forecasting Network (XVPCA) which conducts research into ozone levels, amongst other things. “Through the network we can identify the most vulnerable or affected areas in order to put into practice the most suitable measures of prevention or treatment,” said the network’s María Riquel. “We can establish the quality of the air we breathe and warn the public and we can also observe variations in air quality at a particular location.”
The department pays special attention to ozone levels between May and September every year when pollution levels are at their highest. It releases warnings when levels exceed recommended thresholds to town councils and regional authorities, the Department of Health, Civil Defence Authorities, the Emergency Centre of Catalonia (CECAT), Barcelona Provincial Council, the Analysis Centres and Televisió de Catalunya, plus anone else who wishes to receive warnings.
The biggest challenge Catalunya faces in reducing CO2 pollution is cutting down the amount of traffic on its roads. In their latest report on the problem, Ecologistas en Acció de Catalunya said, “Since the main agent of air pollution is road traffic, any serious attempt at dealing with the problem has to tackle this issue. Several European cities are already limiting traffic entering major cities. Examples include the congestion charge in London, traffic regulation according to number plates in Northern Italy and free transport passes for citizens who give up their licences in Belgian cities. Whilst the city council likes to talk about reducing road traffic, all it ever seems to do is build new roads.”
The Generalitat’s Department of the Environment does not downplay the gravity of the situation. “The government needs to improve the public transport infrastructure and its management,” said Francesc Baltasar, a department spokesperson. “People are travelling increasing distances between their homes and workplaces and this amount of mobility is a problem. People get very upset when they see things such as the Prestige oil spill but there’s an environmental crisis just as serious—if not more so because it affects us directly—on our doorsteps. There are numerous studies here that indicate premature deaths caused by air pollution surpass even deaths on the road.”
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European Ozone Map: http://www.eea.europa.eu/maps/ozone/welcome