Take action for zero pollution

18 May 2021

“Describe your future city vision.” Ask this to anyone and you’re more than likely to get an answer along the lines of cleaner air, more open, quieter and greener spaces, and a greater sense of sustainability.

For many of us, this tantalising vision of a future urban oasis began to feel just a little bit more real thanks to some of the unexpected benefits of the crisis these last months: less noise, less congestion. In effect, less pollution.

The European Commission also has a vision that it shared last week. The Zero Pollution Action Plan sets out targets for 2030 as a milestone along the way to 2050, by which time air, water and soil pollution should be reduced to levels no longer considered harmful to human health or natural ecosystems, while respecting the boundaries within which our planet can thrive.

Louise Coffineau, Eurocities Policy Advisor on Climate

Targets should be more ambitious and more concrete

“The reassertion of the zero pollution hierarchy is very positive – tackling pollution at source and taking preventative action on environmental damage makes absolute sense,” says Louise Coffineau, Policy Advisor on Climate at Eurocities. “However, when we look at some of the new targets, they are less ambitious, for example on air quality, and there is very little information on how to achieve them,” she adds.

In that respect, cities have already shared some concerns with the European Commission regarding the implementation of the Action plan, namely on the future standards for air pollutants emitted by road vehicles

For instance, the Action Plan sets a target for a 30% reduction in microplastics by 2030 – laudable, but “unambitious”, according to Coffineau. “The European Commission suggests that we should be able to achieve this by better implementing existing EU policies,” she explains. “But that’s not enough. Microplastics have an outsized impact on our environment. Reduction of microplastics requires an overall strategy, where the intentional release of microplastics is banned and where the polluter pays principle applies and drives innovation away from the release of microplastics.”

The Zero Pollution Action Plan sets out key 2030 targets to speed up reducing pollution at source, in several areas, including:

  • improving air quality to reduce premature deaths caused by air pollution by 55%;
  • improving water quality by reducing waste, plastic rubbish at sea (by 50%) and microplastics released in the environment (by 30%);
  • improving soil quality by reducing nutrient losses and chemical pesticides’ use by 50%;
    reducing by 25% the EU ecosystems where air pollution threatens biodiversity;
  • reducing the share of people chronically disturbed by transport noise by 30%, and
  • reducing by 50% residual municipal waste and significantly reducing waste generation.

Cities and regions are at the forefront of implementing pollution-relevant laws, policies and programmes. Many cities are already taking ambitious action but still struggle to address pollution sufficiently.

“Achieving these targets will heavily rely on the ability of cities and regions to implement them,” says Coffineau, “which is why more information on any specific measures to manage goals such as a 50 per cent reduction in residual municipal waste would be helpful.”

While the inclusion of a target for noise reduction is most welcome, it’s also no time to be complacent. Eurocities has called on the European Commission to commit to setting noise reduction targets at EU level in its 2022 review, to make up for decades’ worth of lost action. More on this topic from Eurocities.

On a more positive note, the Action Plan also lists some flagship initiatives, such as identifying key urban greening and innovation needs to prevent pollution during the foreseen “European Year of Greener Cities” in 2022, which will link up with existing initiatives, such as the Green City Accord and expected Horizon Europe Mission to create 100 Smart and Climate Neutral Cities by 2030.

Another flagship initiative will be a series of living labs to engage with local and regional authorities to help develop local actions for green and digital transformation.

Read more on the Zero Pollution Action Plan here.

Learn more about our planetary boundaries here.


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer