Eastern European cities welcome first low-emission zones

4 May 2023

Warsaw, Riga and Sofia are set to introduce their first low-emission zones, banning the most polluting vehicles from their central areas.  

The three cities will follow into the footsteps of other municipalities in northern and southern Europe that have already enforced similar measures in the last few decades.

In this map by, the dots marking areas with low-emission zones cut a straight line from Italy to the Netherlands, but are sparser in Western and Eastern Europe.

Warsaw, Riga and Sofia plan to reverse that trend.  

A view of Warsaw’s city centre

If you pollute, you’re out

Data from the European Environment Agency  shows that people in the European Union are constantly exposed to air pollution levels above those recommended by the World Health Organisation. The so-called LEZ – low-emission zone – is an effective tool to tackle that issue by acting against one of the main culprits of poor air quality in cities: road traffic.  

From 1 July 2024, Warsaw will ban access to the city centre to vehicles of category Euro 2 and lower for gas-fuelled vehicles and to Euro 4 and lower for diesel vehicles. Every two years, stricter limits will apply to cars of higher emission standard categories. An exception will be made for public service vehicles like police or firefighters as well as people with a mobility impairment.   

Warsaw’s scheme follows three months of consultations between city officials and Warsaw residents, who were given the chance to offer suggestions and amend proposals.  

The low-emission zone will cover the Polish capital’s city centre where the main train station, museums, theatres and offices are located. And thanks to roads linking the centre to several other neighbourhoods, local officials say restrictions will end up affecting a larger territory and car usage patterns even outside the LEZ. 

The move will not only help to clear the air in Warsaw, but also encourage public transport use. “The area proposed is connected to the rest of the city by multiple tram and bus lines, as well as underground railway connections, both urban and suburban,” says Tamàs Dombi, the Head of Traffic Management Department in Warsaw. “Although more than 50 percent of daily commuters choose public transportation, Warsaw still suffers from transport pollution,” he adds.   

In the Polish capital, air monitors regularly detect polluting particles exceeding European standards. However, those levels have decreased in recent years after Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski made air quality improvement one of his priorities

Warsaw’s pollution woes can be partly attributed to the age of models circulating on the city’s roads. According to an April 2022 study by the International Council on Clean Transportation, 32% of light-duty vehicles in the city are used, imported from abroad and have an average age of 13 years.  

Cars in Sofia, Bulgaria
Cars in Sofia©Stoyan Kolev

Like in Warsaw, older, second-hand cars are a common feature in many other Eastern European cities, where lower purchasing power prompts consumers to opt for cheaper though more polluting models from Western Europe.

In Bulgaria, Sofia is just months away from implementing an unprecedented low-emission scheme. From 1 December 2023, passenger cars and commercial vehicles from the most polluting category won’t be allowed to access the so-called “small ring” area in the city centre. Successive  bans starting from 2024  will be extended every year to a larger urban perimeter, the “greater ring”, and progressively applied to other vehicle categories. 

“By introducing the LEZ, Sofia is one step closer to achieving the main goal set in the Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan: by 2035, 80% of all trips in the city should be made on foot, by bicycle or public transport, and only 20%,” explains Metodi Avramov, Sofia’s Director Strategies, Innovations and International Projects 

The Bulgarian capital is also taking action against air pollution generated by heating. From 1 January 2025, Sofia will forbid the use of solid fuels such as wood and coal for domestic heating in nine districts, and later expand that measure in other parts of the city.  

Riga's street with busses and cars' lights

Riga – where transport has a major impact on air quality – aims to have a LEZ action plan by 2027. The Latvian capital’s strategy is still under discussion and might include traffic flow reorganization, urban vehicle access regulations, cargo vehicle re-routing, along with other strategies. 

Over the past few months, Eurocities has been supporting Riga’s low-emission journey by connecting it with municipalities boasting long-standing experience in this field. 

Will Euro 7 change the air?

As the European Union moves to set more stringent air quality goals to be achieved by 2030, low-emission zones will become increasingly common in the coming years. Despite recent improvements in combustion engine technology, too many polluting vehicles still run in urban areas, causing severe respiratory diseases, especially among the most vulnerable. 

A new regulation known as Euro 7 – currently under discussion at the EU level – might be a powerful ally to cities in their fight against road traffic pollution. However, Eurocities is concerned that the proposed regulation lacks ambition and fails to set strong emission limits.

In its current formulation, Euro 7 would force municipalities to take further action and adopt unpopular measures, such as a ban on conventional vehicles, which would extoll a high political price on local authorities.

Top picture credit: ©Chuttersnap


Thomas Lymes Policy Advisor, Mobility & Air Quality
Daniela Berretta Eurocities Writer