Member states must help clean up the air in our cities

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Lot van Hooijdonk [Sebastiaan ter Burg/Flickr]

It’s high time that member states step up their air quality measures to support cities’ local actions. A stronger directive on national emissions ceilings is essential to make it happen. Withdrawing the Commission proposal now would further delay action we should take to protect our citizens’ health, writes Lot van Hooijdonk.

Lot van Hooijdonk is the deputy mayor for transport and mobility, energy and environment in the city of Utrecht. She chairs the environment forum of EUROCITIES, the network of major European cities.

Making sure our citizens have clean air to breathe is vital. Cities have plenty of local measures in place to help promote cleaner air. In Utrecht, for example, we are capitalising on the popularity of cycling by providing facilities like brand new bike parking, bike lanes and we’re reducing pollution from delivery vehicles through the cargo hopper, which allows goods to be loaded onto electric vehicles and transported around the city.

But there is only so much we can do a thet local level. Harmful pollutants can travel a long way, and the causes of poor air quality are often beyond the control of cities. That’s why we so urgently need a strong National Emissions Ceilings Directive (NECD). Setting binding targets for the reduction of specific harmful pollutants by 2025 especially would make a big difference to our citizens’ health, and to the attractiveness, quality of life and competitiveness of our cities.

The Commission has been developing its Air Quality Package for almost three years, with input from member states and a wide range of stakeholders. Withdrawing it now would not only undo all that work, but would be a disaster for Europe’s air quality.

The NECD is the centrepiece of the package. It sets upper limits for the emissions of major pollutants over a year in each country. Member states then have the flexibility to decide how to comply with these. And they have many tools at their disposal to do so, like designing tax policies to incentivise cleaner fuels and technologies for road vehicles and heating installations. National governments are also largely responsible for determining how people and goods travel medium and long distances, and how much pollution is emitted in the production of electricity and heat. Air pollution doesn’t respect borders or administrative boundaries, so we are depending on a strong NECD to make that critical difference to our cities, and to the quality of air all of our citizens breathe.

There are convincing reasons for strong regulation on national emissions ceilings. The targets the Commission is proposing for 2020 would simply meet the levels the EU has already committed to through the Gothenburg Protocol. Stricter ceilings would then apply in 2030, with intermediate goals for 2025. The Commission’s own impact assessment shows that introducing stricter, binding targets in 2025 already would be cost-effective. This would also help member states to comply with the Ambient Air Quality Directive, while at the moment many are failing to stay within the hourly or daily limit values.

Europe also has a role to play in managing the causes of air pollution that are outside cities’ control. Many emitters, like agriculture and transport, are not subject to local rules but come under European legislation and standards. For example, Euro standards are responsible for regulating the emissions from cars, trucks and buses. The

These standards are currently failing to deliver the emissions reductions expected, and do not accurately reflect the urban reality of stop-start traffic and short-distance travel. We would like to see tests that reflect actual urban driving conditions. This would help reinforce local actions, like low emissions zones and the introduction of cleaner buses and taxis. That is why it is essential that the Real World Driving Emissions (RDE) test procedure for the Euro 6/VI emission standards for cars, trucks and buses is fully operational by 2017 at the very latest. We also need tight standards for two-wheelers, boats and non-road mobile machinery such as construction machines. 

The climate and energy targets EU leaders agreed upon in October 2014, a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases, a 27% share in renewables and a 30% improvement in energy efficiency compared with 2007, mean that Europe will need to burn fewer fossil fuel. This would not only reduce CO2 emissions but also pollutant emissions, thereby supporting the NEC targets. In fact, a recent impact assessment published by the Parliament estimates that by implementing these climate goals, achieving the NEC targets would be €5.5bn cheaper. This is another reason to go for more ambitious, binding targets in 2025. It makes no sense to withdraw the package now and start again from scratch.

Our cities will continue to do their bit, investing heavily in infrastructure for sustainable transport, cleaner vehicles, and encouraging citizens to opt for ‘greener’ ways to travel, like walking, cycling or public transport.  

If we are serious about cleaner air in our cities and the health of our citizens, we must act now to strengthen the proposed NEC Directive. 

Subscribe to our newsletters