The European Commission has just put forward a proposal for a revised Air Quality Directive – one that pundits say has marked improvements, but shortfalls too. As poor air quality contributes as much to disease as bad diets and smoking around the world, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), this is a major concern for Europe’s cities.
The WHO’s air quality recommendations are considered the gold standard for human health, and the proposed directive includes a firm commitment to achieve safe levels by 2050, as well as a mid-way target for 2030. “Having this realistic long-term target and an interim target to ensure immediate efforts and forward thinking strategies is key to making this directive work for people living in cities across Europe,” says Eurocities Air Quality Policy Advisor Thomas Lymes, “which is why we fully support to have these measures included in the directive.”
While long term targets are positive, achieving cleaner air is urgent and many cities are taking measures already. In Brussels Capital Region, the local administration managed to reduce harmful pollutants like nitric oxides and particulate matter (PM2.5) by around 11% in just one year by introducing low emission zones. The latest tightening of the rules in January 2022 also saw the share of older diesel vehicles not equipped with particle filters go down from 14% to only 3%.
Since the directive was last updated in 2008, the science of air-pollution has come a long way, and there are now many pollutants whose detrimental effects on human health are better understood. The new proposal seeks to regulate these or, in the case of pollutants whose dynamics are not well understood, to monitor them so that they can be regulated effectively in future.
This is a development that cities were keen to see. “The draft rules proposed by the European Commission are much needed to support cities’ actions towards a zero-pollution future,” commented Filipe Araújo, Eurocities Environment Forum Chair, and Vice-President of Porto City Council for Environment and Climate Transition, Innovation and Digital Transition.
The Commission has also used the opportunity to close a detrimental loophole in the previous directive. This was the focus on ‘hot-spots,’ small, highly polluted areas. However, this meant that resources were dedicated to dispersing the concentration, without necessarily bringing overall levels down.
“You might have had a school where there was a lot of congestion in the morning – now the traffic has been redirected, so the concentration is not so high in this one spot, but the overall air quality in the neighbourhood – and the impact on health – has not improved” Lymes explains. “Obviously, we need to do better than that, which is why we pointed out this issue to the Commission in our recent paper.”
Now, the new proposal would create an obligation to reduce the average concentration of air pollution across an entire region. Cities already have plenty of tactics that can help to achieve this. Simple measures like The Grenoble Alpes Metropolitan Area’s €2,000 grants for people to replace wood-burning stoves, identified as responsible for up to 75% of fine particulate pollutants, actually reduce total emissions, rather than pushing them around.
It’s not all about making regulations more stringent. The new proposal also takes into account Eurocities’ advocacy for flexibility in the case of cities that have to make more effort to control air pollution due to factors beyond their control.
“This could mean mountains that impede normal air-flows, or being the neighbour of a highly polluting area that sends its toxic air to your city on the wind,” Lymes says. “Many of our Northern Italian members, for example, suffer higher levels of pollution for reasons beyond their control.”
Despite its laudable ambitions, many pundits are already lamenting some foreshadowing of the directive’s potential failure. One such issue lies within the directive itself: Eurocities and other advocates for healthier air wanted to see joint responsibility for achieving targets shared between member states and the European Commission.
As the directive stands, member states and other competent authorities – cities and regions most of the time – are solely responsible for maintaining a good level of air quality. However, many rules adopted by the EU institutions have an impact on air quality in cities and they sometimes may not be fully supporting the air quality objectives.
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. “If the EU and member states’ policies are not consistent,” says Lymes, “then some people might well question its actual commitment to the targets it’s setting out. If they take these ambitions seriously, why not stand behind them?”
Word is already spreading that Euro 7, the updated regulation for vehicle emissions, may not be in step with the Air Quality Directive. “If we have targets for better air quality, but we don’t have rules to properly achieve those targets and diesel engines are still free to pollute our streets, we cannot seriously hope to achieve what has been set out,” Lymes declares.
Cities around Europe are empowering local people to better understand and gather evidence about air quality. In Rotterdam, the citizen science initiative De Luchtclub (‘The Air Club’), led by the local administration, helps residents measure PM2.5 themselves, and share their results. “Cities are giving locals the tools to hold them to account – I’d like to see that bravery in the Commission too,” Lymes comments.
#MeetYourMolecule: This heavy #particle killed 1000s in months in early #industrial cities. It still lingers near #diesel engines harming 🫁 s & ♥s. We need step-by-step #EU plan to achieve @WHO #CleanAir levels now. #Pollution #air #Halloween #Monsters https://t.co/xRu9fgaL4U pic.twitter.com/DiWGsc8GMO
— Eurocities (@EUROCITIES) October 25, 2022
On releasing the directive, Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, announced, “Any analysis you see show that citizens want urgent actions. People are worried about the quality of the air they breathe or the water they drink. We will be at the sides of municipalities, looking for solutions. It’s not going to be easy, where there is a good will, the European Commission will provide support to the local authorities.”
For Eurocities’ part, Lymes guarantees that Europe’s cities are ready and willing to continue working with the European institutions to help improve the directive and ensure that its ambitions do not melt into air.