A breath of fresh air

27 September 2021

The big smoke is a label that has been attached to many cities over the years, such as London and Manchester during the heyday of Britain’s industrial revolution. The sense by those approaching the city periphery of seeing and entering under a thick blanket of smog was particularly linked to the burning of coal.

While coal may no longer be the culprit in most of Europe, many of our cities are still engulfed by air particle levels that far exceed recommended safe limits for good health.

In the EU, the lack of enforcement and stringent standards can undermine local efforts taken by cities to improve their air quality. In addition, the EU’s own safe levels are below those recommended by the World Health Organisation, which has recently published a new set of updated guidelines.

The new values from the WHO reflect the latest scientific consensus on the acceptable levels of air pollution to preserve human health. The conclusions are clear: governments need to do more on air pollution, by going far beyond the recommended minimum values. The WHO also estimates that 80% of current deaths attributed to air quality could be avoided if governments implement its recommendations.

Tackling transport emissions

Today the chief source of air pollution in cities comes from transport. In Berlin, for example, transport has been shown to account for three-quarters of the nitrogen oxide pollution. Reducing polluting emissions from road traffic is therefore a priority for all cities tackling air quality.

It’s a fight that the city seems to be winning, having managed this year to keep within the WHO recommended air quality limits for the first time.

Martin Lutz, Head of Air Quality Management, Berlin

“I don’t think Covid was a significant factor,” comments Martin Lutz, Head of Air Quality Management at the Department of Environment, Transport and Climate Protection for the city of Berlin. “Our traffic data shows that we are already back to normal in terms of traffic volumes. So covid was only a limited and temporary effect, and we would have got there anyway.”

The city has taken very direct measures wherever it can – from banning diesel vehicles on the most polluted roads and setting 30km speed limits on many urban roads to the accelerated electrification of the bus fleet by 2030 and the reallocation of road space away from car traffic to cyclists and pedestrians, as stipulated by Berlin’s new Mobility Act.

Of course, the majority of air pollution is invisible to the human eye. Data shows that the smaller particles, PM2.5, are the most harmful to human health, and it is the very latest data that the updated WHO guidelines rely on.

“We were able to meet the previous targets, for example, to reduce nitrogen oxide levels to 40 microns. These new standard asks us to achieve 10 – without going into exactly what this means, it’s clear that it will be a huge challenge but we are ready to take up the challenge,” says Lutz.

And its one that even the leading cities will struggle to manage unless national governments, private companies and the EU institutions work hand in hand to achieve a substantive reduction of air pollutants.

Electric busses in Berlin

“We’ve seen,” says Lutz, “that when we’re collecting our fine dust samples we pick up chemical compounds formed in the air from ammonia that has run off from agricultural land outside of the city’s jurisdiction. There are also many other harmful items in our air, such as runoff from tyres and road surfaces, and it all combines to show that what’s in our air isn’t always local; it’s not simply a product of where we are, but it’s coming from all over. We need to work together.”

Cities on a mission to reduce emissions

Many other cities have adopted similar drastic measures to curb the threat of this silent killer, which claims an estimated 400,000 lives a year in Europe. Milan, for example, now limits the use of the most polluting vehicles in certain urban areas from 7:30-19:30 during the working week, in a bid to safeguard its air quality.

London recently announced that all new public busses will be zero-emission and committed to make its entire bus fleet emission free by 2034. Leading by example in this way is one of the options for cities hoping to create change within their territory.

However, as Louise Cheeseman, Transport For London’s Director of Buses, has pointed out via a press release on the city’s website, this could happen even faster, saving an additional one million tonnes of carbon from entering the atmosphere, with the support of central government:

“We’ve done everything possible to make the bus network clean and now we are focussed on making it green, which is why it’s so important that we’re able to commit that all new buses in London will be zero-emission. We’re now working to have a completely zero-emission bus network as soon as possible, and with Government support we could do this by 2030 while also stimulating the bus market.”

Meanwhile, the city will also forge ahead in expanding its Ultra Low Emission Zone.

What can EU do?

EU air quality standards allow higher air pollution concentrations than what is suggested by scientific advice, and the revised WHO guidelines. The upcoming revision of the EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directive is the opportunity for the EU to address this. At a minimum the cities network Eurocities has called for the EU standards to be moved into alignment with the WHO guidelines.

On this note at least, Lutz, who is Co-Chair of Eurocities Working Group on Air Quality, together with London, sounds a note of optimism. “The EU’s Zero Pollution Action Plan certainly highlights an ambition to move in this direction,” he says.

However, Lutz also notes how future legislation could really help cities to act in a much more targeted way. “Now what we have is a strong focus on the reduction of pollution at hot spots exceeding the EU’s air quality standards. Given the huge variation of pollution across Europe the compliance burden almost entirely rests on a few non-compliant highly polluted regions, while in the rest of the EU there seems to be a lack of incentive to protect populations against unhealthy pollution levels still above the WHO guidelines,” he says.

“What we need,” according to Lutz, is “to be really ambitious is to set additional targets for a relative reduction of the exposure of the urban population to pollutants. On top of updating and legally strengthening the current aggregated targets for each country, we should also have regional targets applied to larger agglomerations and regions exceeding the WHO guideline levels. This would give cities more flexibility in taking ambitious measures to achieve a widespread improvement of the air quality towards the guideline levels of the WHO in the most cost-effective way.”

As Eurocities pointed out in its response to a preliminary EU consultation in January 2021, cities play a major role in implementing the Ambient Air Quality Directive, notably on air quality assessment, on the design and implementation of air quality plans, and on relating information to the public, and should also have a strong role in its revision. Cities also expect the Commission to quickly come up with new vehicle air pollution limits to address one of the main sources of air pollution in cities.

Read Eurocities’ full response here.


Main image: Philipp Boehme


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer