Policy papers

Hope is in the air (quality)

6 April 2022

Sixteen times more deaths can be linked to air pollution in comparison to road fatalities, and yet the quality of our air is less well publicised than road safety.

The invisibility of more harmful particulate matter, the less clear and less sudden causal link to mortality, and the difficulty to determine monetary value are no doubt all part of the reason that air quality does not receive the same level of attention. Nonetheless, at local level, and especially in cities, air quality remains a concern for many people in Europe.

A new position paper by Eurocities, Hope is in the air (quality), contends that despite strong action in recent decades, EU activities to combat poor air quality do not go far enough towards meeting the union’s own target of halving the number of premature deaths linked to air pollution by 2030, as outlined in the Zero Pollution Action Plan.

“The ambition of the European Commission to revise the EU framework on air quality, particularly the Ambient Air Quality directives, is really good news,” said Martin Lutz, Head of Air Quality Management at the Department of Environment, Mobility, Consumer and Climate Protection for the city of Berlin.

“With this in mind, however, we expect local, and city voices to be taken into account. Recent data collected during the Covid19 crisis has been a revelation. Madrid, for instance, recorded a reduction of 71% of NO2 emissions caused by traffic during the most stringent period of the lockdowns. And, the fact is that exhaust pipe emissions from road vehicles are completely avoidable,” added Lutz, who is also Co-Chair of Eurocities Working Group on Air Quality.

Vehicle emissions remain one of the main sources of air pollution in cities, and is an area where European standards setting has proven to be successful in drawing down the level of harmful toxins in our air. That’s why one of the recommendations of the paper is the swift adoption of the Euro7 proposal.

However, the extensive policy position focuses on much more than road traffic, looking at how other sources of air pollution curb urban liveability and impact human health and biodiversity.

Cities are taking bold measures to address this issue. From scrapping schemes for heating devices in Warsaw to investing in renewable energy in Zaragoza.

In fact, local authorities play an important leading role in improving air quality, and the paper also outlines several ways in which this local level knowledge could be better included in bringing EU action on air quality up to scratch – especially to reflect the new World Health Organization guidelines set last year.

According to the city network, the only realistic way for the EU to move closer to the WHO’s recommended levels on air quality is to adopt a ‘step-by-step’ approach.

A first step would be to set 2030 as a legally binding deadline for reducing most major air pollutants across EU member states.

The network also recommends including new monitoring requirements in the ambient air quality directives to record levels of emerging pollutants of concerns like ultra-fine particles and black soot particles, which are not within the current scope of EU legislation. This should serve as a baseline to further regulate them in the future.

Currently, the EU framework for ambient air quality objectives focuses on setting legally binding limit values, especially around the hot spots – areas where the highest particulate concentrations intersect with a higher density of people. However, Eurocities argues that more incentives are needed to ensure member states take additional measures to further reduce people’s exposure to poor quality air, especially regards the smaller PM2.5 particles, and to reduce the largescale levels of background pollution.

More immediately, it’s important that local authorities are allowed to play their part. Eurocities recommends keeping the list of pollutants covered by the current limit values more or less intact, to ensure local and regional authorities are clear about what they can do. In addition, local climatic conditions should be taken into account, allowing for short term derogations in limit values for certain areas, which should be matched with specific funding to aid air pollutant dispersion.

When it comes to the governance of the ambient air quality directives, the Eurocities paper suggests that achieving air quality targets will require joint responsibility between member states and the EU institutions – similar to the model already used under the EU Climate Law – and that member states should collaborate with their local and regional authorities to identify potential areas for improvement, including on air quality monitoring.

Lastly, local authorities recognised that without people’s involvement in air pollution reduction initiatives, or without an adequate level of information offered to people, it will be harder to convince them to adapt their behaviour.

Yet cities are often not well equipped to know what is best to communicate on when it comes to air quality, and Eurocities advocates for further guidance from the EU on the type of science-based information that should be shared with residents, especially around high pollution episodes. In addition, the Eurocities paper states that EU support for the development of citizen science initiatives could bring positive changes.

Read the full position paper here.


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer
Thomas Lymes Policy Advisor, Mobility & Air Quality