Air quality in Germany is getting better. Last year, only 25 instead of 57 cities exceeded the limit values for nitrogen dioxide. However, experts are warning this is based on short-term effects and suggest now is the time to rethink transport. EURACTIV Germany reports.
The air in German cities is getting better and better – completely independently of the restrictions imposed to combat the coronavirus. This is the conclusion of official figures for 2019 published by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) on Tuesday (9 June).
According to the data, 25 cities still exceed the limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). The year before, it was more than double – 57 cities. The cities with the worst air quality were Munich, Darmstadt and Stuttgart.
There are no reliable figures available yet for this year, but first measurements during the coronavirus restrictions showed a decrease of NO2-emissions of up to 40%. In many large cities, traffic had decreased by 30% to 50%.
In contrast, the improvement in air quality for 2019 is mainly due to political measures, UBA concluded. These include speed limits and driving bans such as those in the low emission zones now in place in 58 German cities, but also technical improvements to vehicles and the increased use of electric buses in public transport.
UBA President Dirk Messner stressed that now was the right time to change people’s mobility behaviour: “We should definitely take this positive insight with us out of this crisis as another reason for a long-term transformation in transport.”
Since the restriction measures have been eased, traffic in many European cities has again increased rapidly, as many people are still avoiding buses and trains and are travelling by car instead.
Paris is declaring war on cars
Exposure to particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide is highly weather-dependent, therefore, experts can only generate limited longer-term forecasts. However, the pandemic has significantly improved the air in many places around the world for a short time. In China, nitrogen dioxide concentrations fell by 10 to 30% in February.
In Europe, too, photographs taken by a Copernicus satellite showed much clearer aerial images, especially over Milan, Paris and Madrid. The French Institute for Industrial Environment and Risks (INERIS) reported that nitrogen dioxide pollution in France’s major cities had decreased by 49% and particulate matter by 10% to 12%.
Paris, like a number of other European cities, has taken the new circumstances as an opportunity to promote further measures against cars in city centres. For example, the city plans to invest €300 million in new cycling paths with a total length of 680 km and has closed for cars the traditionally busy Rue de Rivoli, which crosses Paris from east to west and runs in front of the city hall and the Louvre.
In the future, the mayor of Paris would like to see car traffic in the city centre halved. Thus, on some days, only cars with even numbers should be allowed to drive, on other days those with odd numbers.
President Emmanuel Macron has also spoken out in favour of a mobility transformation. “Once we have overcome this crisis, people will no longer accept breathing dirty air,” he recently said.
Environmental Action Germany is suing the German government
Although air quality is subject to European standards – laid out in the so-called NEC [National Emission Ceilings] Directive – some member states have exceeded the limit values for years. In 2018, the EU Commission sued six countries, including Germany and France, for not taking sufficient measures to improve air quality.
In Germany, the national clean air programme is supposed to implement the EU’s NEC directive, but environmentalists say it is too lax.
Jürgen Resch, Federal Managing Director of Environmental Action Germany, speaks of an impressive “kneeling before the industrial corporations” in regards to the German regulations.
The Clean Air Programme is largely limited to vague assumptions without specifying a time horizon or fixed responsibilities. In a joint lawsuit with the NGO ClientEarth, Environmental Action Germany filed a complaint against the German government at the Higher Administrative Court of Berlin-Brandenburg on 20 May, aiming to strengthen the Clean Air Programme.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]