Mayors to EU: Help us fill our lungs with clean air

21 April 2022

This article originally appeared in Euractiv, under the headline ‘Breathe in, breathe out: Europe must match global air quality standards’

The article is written by Dimitar Nikolov, Mayor of Burgas; and Rafał Trzaskowski, Mayor of Warsaw.

We’re suffocating, and we’re not even really aware of it. Each year, air pollution leads to more than 300,000 premature deaths in Europe. Meanwhile, not enough is being done.

The World Health Organization recently published a set of revised guidelines, reflecting the latest scientific consensus on the maximum levels of air pollution to minimise harm to human health, according to which 80% of current air quality related deaths could be avoided.

These guidelines set the gold standard, and are the benchmark the EU should be aiming for as it looks to rework its own air quality legislation in the coming months.

As mayors, we are prepared to do everything we can to reduce the amount of toxic particles in our air, but this is not an issue that stops at the city gates.

We need national and EU level accountability to tackle all sources of pollution and ensure a continuous and rapid decrease of harmful pollutants in the air we all breathe.

Out and about

Across Europe, the main source of air pollution in our cities comes directly from transport – even tyre runoff contributes to the mix of noxious gasses, chemicals and others particles that we daily breathe in.

It’s estimated that thousands of deaths can be prevented each year if we follow the WHO guidelines – as many as 1,500 in Warsaw alone.

And the good news is that even small improvements can make a difference. One study conducted in Dublin during the Covid19 related to transport restrictions found that significantly fewer patients were admitted to hospital with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease during that time.

There is also copious evidence to show that if we increase the modal share of active forms of transport such as cycling and walking, it brings many other benefits to city dwellers. That’s why Burgas has invested in affordable rent-a-bike schemes, including 100 e-bikes. Additionally, Burgas is working together with the local transport authority to replace all of its diesel buses with electric ones by 2030.

Transport is a huge challenge for Warsaw, mainly due to the over two million privately registered vehicles in the capital. That’s why the city plans to introduce clean transport zones in the near future, and is investing heavily in publicly available charging infrastructure for e-vehicles, not to mention public transport – with a second metro line currently being built and another planned, as well as a full scale replacement of public buses for cleaner options.

At home

Another source of emissions that we are focussed on cutting often comes from our homes. In Burgas, we are collaborating with five other municipalities in the country on an EU-funded project, focussed on the design and implementation of a scheme for transitioning from traditional wood and coal heating methods that pollute the air, to more ecological alternatives including central heating, gas, or wood pellets, which have been sustainably sourced. Indicators show that the municipalities will significantly decrease PM10 pollution as well as the emissions of noxious gases. Thanks to active citizen involvement – residents are encouraged to apply to replace their old coal or wood stoves – these municipalities are on course to meet strict new air pollution standards for 2030.

Rafał Trzaskowski, Mayor of Warsaw
Rafał Trzaskowski, Mayor of Warsaw

In Warsaw, thanks to a subsidy offered by the city council, over 4,500 black-smoke-belching stoves have been decommissioned since 2017, and we know that around 8-10,000 still remain in the city. With this in mind, we’re also working actively with residents to install renewable energy – by offering co-financing and raising awareness about our services and how we can help. As a result, since 2017, we have provided 4,415 solar panel grants totaling 34.6 MW of electricity production. On top of that, the city is leading by example, and already has over 140 solar panel installations on city infrastructure facilities with a total capacity of 9.3 MW.

At work

One study published last year by the European Public Health Alliance, based on data from 432 cities, shows that the average total cost from air pollution in a European city is 3.9% of lost GDP – around €1,000 lost for each citizen each year, leading to a lower standard of living. In Warsaw this rises significantly to around €2,500.

It’s a joint responsibility for all of us, in all walks of life, which is why we also reach out to local businesses in a variety of formats. Warsaw’s “Partnership for Climate” gathers a wide variety of different types of organisations around a commitment to protect the natural environment and engage in educational and promotional activities.

The city further cooperates with the large private energy producers, including companies managing coal-power plants to develop the municipal heating network and reduce individual heating system sources. This is one of the ways that Warsaw strives to reduce energy poverty in the city. We are also in talks with the city’s main electricity suppliers to coordinate plans for the energy transition.

Dimitar Nikolov, Mayor of Burgas
Dimitar Nikolov, Mayor of Burgas

Similarly, Burgas collaborates with big industrial polluters in the region, and not only constantly monitors emissions from the local oil refinery, and other industries, but also monitors and collects other data on the ambient air quality. This includes ensuring fast action on behalf of local people in response to other incidents, such as bad odours, which the city is currently in the process of revising to take account of other factors like prevailing climatic conditions.

No acceptable pollution levels

While no level of air pollution should be deemed acceptable, the current ‘legal maximum levels demarcated by the EU are far less protective than those recommended by the WHO, especially in the case of the most harmful pollutant, PM2.5 particulate matter. Moreover, a lack of enforcement or clear standards in the EU, can undermine city-level efforts such as those we have described. While every little step helps, air pollution traverses borders, and the quality of the air we breathe cannot be successfully treated in isolated pockets.

We really are all in this together, which is why the EU’s stated ambition in its Zero Pollution Action Plan to reduce the amount of premature deaths by 55% by 2030 is a welcome, overdue first step. However, this needs to be supported with clear and ambitious legislation in the upcoming revision of the bloc’s Ambient Air Quality Directives, to ensure that concentrations do not exceed WHO recommended levels.

Cities play a major role in implementing such legislation, notably through relating information to the public, but also through actively collaborating with the public to better understand and manage air quality in the urban environment. In Burgas, for example, a mobile air quality monitoring station can test levels throughout the city, and Warsaw will soon host one of Europe’s largest networks of sensors to monitor air quality – in 165 locations throughout the city and surrounding municipalities, sharing data 24 hours a day on the Warsaw IoT platform and via a mobile application.

But we need to be included in the design of legislation. Setting the right framework at EU level, which is binding at national level, will help cities in their implementation and have a significant impact on the quality of life of all.

So, as we all come up for air in another legislative cycle, and continue to strive towards more sustainable living, let’s hope that national and EU leaders allow us the best opportunity to fill our lungs with fresh, clean air.

Burgas and Warsaw are part of The Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal, an initiative of Eurocities, gathers together city leaders who are dedicated to making the sustainable transition possible.


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer