A new horizon: Better air quality for Europe

21 February 2024

Cities today can breathe a collective sigh of relief as a preliminary agreement has finally been reached on the EU’s revised Ambient Air Quality Directive, following negotiations between the European Parliament, Council, and European Commission.

“Clean air means healthy citizens,” said Tine Heyse, Deputy Mayor of Ghent and Chair of Eurocities Environment Forum. “And that’s exactly what the new EU Ambient Air Quality Directive aims for. It provides a framework for cities to improve air quality. Now, member states must follow suit and support us in our efforts. Acting alone, cities will not be able to get this job done. Together, we will.”

Eurocities and its member cities have been very vocal throughout the previous two years, with many of Eurocities advocacy positions having made it into the final agreement. A good example of this is Eurocities recent call to ensure that energy poverty not be used as an excuse by national governments to postpone air quality targets; and that standards be kept as high as possible, and equal, across Europe.

The new agreement helps to set Europe on a new path towards achieving a toxin-free environment by 2050, with a first interim target set for 2030. And, while it stops short of meeting WHO air quality standards, which may not be met for more than a decade, it does offer better consistency between existing EU legislation on sources of air pollution – one of the major demands from cities on the revised Directive.

Another measure that Eurocities advocated for included an extended catalogue of potential measures to address air pollution in cities. The directive now offers a comprehensive set of potential measures to tackle air pollution, ranging from the more traditional low-emission zones to low-traffic neighbourhoods.

Earlier on in negotiations, Eurocities had also expressed its concern regarding ‘zones’ in which certain air quality targets were supposed to be attained, which can prove difficult owing to the nature of air and the practical difficulties of where the sources of emissions might be that impact each zone. However, the final agreement now offers more flexibility.

Choppy waters ahead

Already, cities are doing a lot to combat air pollution – the Brussels Capital Region’s low-emission zone has helped to lower harmful air pollutants by record numbers, cities like Katowice and Riga have replaced carbon-based home heating sources, among other things, and all over Europe the citizen science community is growing and providing examples of bottom-up approaches to promote effective actions for cleaner air. Yet, despite this, cities right across our continent are struggling to meet the World Health Organisation recommendations on safe air quality levels to preserve human health and biodiversity.

“This new framework is a really positive development,” comments Thomas Lymes, Eurocities Advisor on Air Quality. “The new objectives embedded into the Directive will act as a compass for cities when fighting air pollution. But we still need to go further when it comes to improvements in how we manage the air in our cities, especially by tackling pollution coming from outside cities.”

At the same time, cities are making clear that caution is needed going forward.

“While we did not achieve quite everything we wanted, such as for national air pollution programmes to be aligned with the new targets, we can be satisfied that member states understand that when it comes to air quality, there are no borders, and we should be mindful not to over-rely on local authorities to provide all the solutions” adds Lymes.

Indeed, air pollution produced outside of, but carried into the territory of a city has a strong impact on the air quality in our cities, which is similarly an argument to be made in the Cross-Border Enforcement Directive on how foreign registered vehicles escape Urban Vehicle Access.

The Euro 7 regulation on vehicle air pollution standards is another major area that has a strong impact on air pollution in cities and needs to be coordinated.

“In our mind’s eye, cities can see the horizon we are travelling towards, one in which there are no more senseless deaths from air pollution and where we live in a much more harmonious and natural environment, even in cities. However, as with any great feat of navigation, we must stay the course, in this case, by buffering and finding consistency between these various bits of legislation that impact an overarching air quality,” commented Lymes.

Action needed

The next step for the provisional agreement will be an endorsement by key representatives in both the European Council and the European Parliament. Following formal adoption by both institutions, member states will have two years to transpose it into national law.

Given the state of Europe’s air and the level of action needed, Lymes has an immediate request that the competent authorities should anticipate the entry into force of this Directive, and not wait until it is forced upon them.

Milestones embedded in the Directive set for 2030 would be the first real indicators of whether or not Europe lives up to its promise on air quality, notably to halve the number of premature deaths linked to air pollution by 2030.

“And this approach is really something that we welcome,” says Lymes, “because what it means for cities is that basically, they will earmark a certain share of the local budget, for instance, to address air pollution way ahead of the deadline. With this in mind, we further hope that all member states will be able to prioritise people’s health without finding it necessary to request a formal postponement of the deadline.”

In essence, such an approach should mean that cities have more certainty over planning for the coming years. Now, bring me that horizon.


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer