Cities urged to become ‘greener’ to tackle air pollution

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Policy-makers stressed the role of urban communities in improving air quality at a debate taking place in the context of Green Week 2006.

A conference co-organised by DG Environment and Friends of Europe on 31 May looked at ways of “greening” European cities and stressed the environmental responsibility of urban communities in achieving this goal.

Speakers at the debate unanimously called for more ambitious, legally binding air quality targets, in particular on reducing concentrations of fine particulate matter in the atmosphere (the so-called PM 2.5).

MEP Dorette Corbey (PES, Netherlands) insisted on the need to better translate European policies at local level. She called on all levels of government (EU, states, local) to come together around a coherent strategy following the same regulatory standards on urban environment and clean air legislation. 

P. Danielsson, 
Environmental Manager, Volvo Bus Corporation, added that cooperation between public bodies, business and academia should also be stimulated.

Belgian Environment Minister Bruno Tobback emphasised the need for “integrated solutions” to locally felt environmental problems. He suggested practical measures be taken such as: district heating involving renewable energy, low energy housing projects, environmental city zoning and congestion charges (such as practiced in London and Stockholm).

Tobback supported sustainable and cost-attractive public transport in European cities, but said they only make sense if they are part of a “long-term plan.” In line with these comments, the panel acknowledged the links between pursuing urban environmental goals and more accurate urban planning. A more widespread use of “green” public procurement was also urged for.

MEP G. HeygiRapporteur  on the proposed EU Thematic Strategy on Urban Environment summed up the main message of the debate: "80 % of the European population lives in cities, and what these urban folks need is: cleaner and safer cities; less cars; more green and water."

MEP D. Corbey, Chairman of the Low Level Group on Clean Cars for Europe, said it is crucial to develop new technologies in order to reach EU air pollution goals, but also to increase Europe’s competitiveness towards the rest of the world. "If we develop technologies to clean our cities, we also have something to sell to the world, to help cleaning towns such as Beijing and Bombay."

W. Teubner, Executive of ICLEI-Europe (Local Governments for Sustainability), warned against systematically putting the financial burden of urban environment plans onto local governments. He said "cities do not all have the financial means to implement ambitious legislation such as the upcoming Ambient Air Quality Directive, so that they often depend on subsidies from higher levels of government." It must be borne in mind that "member states are the ones who have a say in Council [of Ministers]," Teubner recalled.

The Commission on 13 January 2006 presented a strategy to make European cities more environmentally-friendly. The strategy focuses on fully applying existing EU policies rather than suggesting new legislation (EURACTIV 16 Jan. 2006).

Its stated goal is "to facilitate better implementation of EU environmental policies and legislation at the local level through exchange of experience and good practice between Europe's local authorities."

The strategy's main novelty is that it allows the use of EU funding (structural and cohesion funds) to support investments that improve the quality of the urban environment.

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