Air quality still troubling for cities

19 May 2023

Air quality remains a pressing concern for cities, and one which contributes as much to disease as bad diets and smoking around the world, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is further supported by data from the European Environment Agency, which shows that in the European Union people are exposed to air pollution levels above those recommended by the WHO.

New rules on vehicle pollutant emissions – known as Euro 7 – published by the European Commission at the end of last year, have not fully assuaged these concerns, which Eurocities has suggested lack ambition.

“If the European Parliament and the Council do not improve the final text, the burden will be shifted onto cities, which might end up paying the price of unpopular – but necessary – measures,” warns André Sobczak, Secretary General, Eurocities.

At the same time, recent successes from the EU, such as the deal to phase out internal combustion engines by 2035, the continued work on the European Green Deal, and the coming European Declaration on Cycling, all demonstrate a commitment towards decarbonisation, and making our cities both more breathable and safer to move around in.

Nonetheless, without a strong connectivity between these various legislative proposals, reinforced by mandatory national level actions, it may be left to cities to do much of the legwork to improve air quality across Europe, ignoring the fact that air pollution in cities is also determined by large-scale background concentrations, especially of fine particles outside of urban areas, which can only be tackled by national measures.

Safer and cleaner

Talking to city representatives at the recent Eurocities Environment Forum, it’s clear that there are many things cities can and are doing, especially regards road traffic and working with their local populations.

In Riga, for instance, air quality monitoring stations check air quality at various points around the city, feeding back data to a central terminus. However, as Alise Pizika, Climate Advisor in the city of Riga, points out, “we are trying to find how to do this better, because the current data basically tells us about certain hotspots, but we want to see the whole picture, so we can reduce the overall exposure to air pollution.”

We want to see the whole picture
— Alise Pizika

In addition, the city is in the process of setting up the first low emission zone in any of the three Baltic countries, and is scouting around for good examples on how to implement this from cities in other countries. For example, a delegation from Norway recently came to Riga to discuss how they have implemented e-vehicle charging infrastructure.

In Katowice, a former mining and industrial city in the South of Poland, which hosted the Conference of the Parties (COP24) in 2018, three new park and ride centres offer 500 car parking slots, and the possibility to catch a ride into the city centre on its trams or buses.

A further focus on cycling infrastructure across Katowice’s wider metropolitan area, connecting 41 municipalities and over 2 million people, has seen 190km of bike lanes installed since 2015 and the appointment of a bike officer to run public discussions on the topic.

In addition, the city is updating its bus fleet, which currently subscribes to Euro 5 limits, but which will soon be refreshed with new hydrogen and electric buses. The city is also exploring its connections with private enterprises to increases the number of solar photovoltaic panels on buildings and charging infrastructure available for e-vehicles.

In addition to road traffic, one thing that both Riga and Katowice are focused on is the heating systems people use in their homes.

Riga is implementing new regulations based on its air quality data for different parts of the city; for example, in the areas where the highest levels of pollution exist, people are restricted from using fossil-fuel sourced heating methods if alternatives are available.

In Katowice, where, as in much of the rest of Poland, one of the main sources of air pollution comes from people’s homes, residents are offered financial incentives to trade in their carbon-based heating sources for modern electric heating and heat pumps.

2022 was our record year
— Mariusz Skiba

“And, despite the Russian aggression in Ukraine, which brought a lot of other concerns, we were very surprised that 2022 was our record year,” says Mariusz Skiba, Deputy Mayor of Katowice, who is responsible for energy and environment. “We’ve now introduced a new regulation to get the last 10,000 or so of these remaining heat sources updated, and so improve our urban air quality, which can involve a fine if people refuse to update their systems.”

The data relayed by the city’s 127 air monitoring stations, which are located at municipal sites such as kindergartens, schools, and other public buildings, is accessible by the public. And to help give a more comprehensive view of this, the city is also talking with industry, as well as companies such as IBM, via an ongoing project, on how to expand this network.

Similarly, in an effort to increase the public’s knowledge about air quality in the city, Riga has teamed up with local NGOs in the city to launch a joint debate between the municipality and residents on actions to take to improve the city’s air quality. It also plans to launch a climate communication campaign this autumn that will focus on the importance of sustainable behaviour change in order to solve climate change challenges as quickly as possible.

EU, a change-maker

Pizika suggests that EU legislation can be a main driver of change, “especially when it comes to car producers, with, for instance, the upcoming ban on petrol and diesel cars by 2035. I think this will help electrify not only the private, but also the whole public transport system as well. It’s good to be ambitious at this level, because this can help encourage much needed political and behaviour change at all levels,” she adds.

It would be good to have more guidelines and support
— Mariusz Skiba

For Skiba, the newer regulations go in the right direction, but now there is a lot of work to do at city level to see how to comply with, and implement the necessary actions. With this in mind, Skiba suggests that “it would be good to have more guidelines and support on how to do this.”

The Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal, strives to show that a sustainable transition is possible with mayors and cities on board.


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer