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Fresh air – without the lockdown

18 March 2021

At the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic one year ago, air quality in many European cities improved dramatically as life ground to a halt.

Now, with air pollution creeping back up to pre-lockdown levels, new analysis shows that changes such as zero-emissions vehicles and more active travel could grant cities clean air again without lockdown restrictions.

A study from Transport & Environment (T&E) shows that the drops in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) traffic pollution of up to 76% in some European cities could be guaranteed once more with more space for walking, cycling and public transport; more zero-emissions vehicles and more low-emissions zones.

In Paris, for example, 67% of all kilometres driven by cars, vans and truck would need to be zero-emissions to reach lockdown levels. And in Madrid, 10% of all kilometres travelled by light and heavy-goods vehicles, as well as 94% of car-km, would have to go zero emission. This figure is as high as 92% of all kilometres driven in London and as low as 42% in Budapest.

The report, titled “Blue Sky Recovery”, calls on mayors and national governments to focus on the shift towards zero-emissions vehicles, walking and cycling through the reform of taxation on non-polluting vehicles, reallocating space for sustainable transport and phasing out the sale EU-wide of polluting vehicles by – at latest – 2035.

It comes as governments prepare recovery plans of how to spend almost €700 billion of funds to get Europe back-on-track after the pandemic.

Jens Müller, Air Quality Coordinator at Transport & Environment, said: “We all remember the clean air as an unexpected side effect of the early lockdowns. This literal breath of fresh air for cities came after decades of being shrouded by pollution. Our study shows how mayors can permanently bring cleaner air back without the lockdowns. It is now on them to use their powers to boost clean travel options like electric vehicles and low-emission zones.”

Lockdowns in March 2020 saw unprecedented reductions in air pollution. In Brussels, London, Madrid and Paris, NO2 traffic pollution dropped 43%, 54%, 71% and 76% respectively. In Milan, residents could clearly see the Alps again, more than 100 kilometres away.

The European Environment Agency estimates that air pollution causes around 379,000 deaths a year in Europe.

You can find more information and download the report on T&E’s website.

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Fraser Moore Eurocities Writer

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