Let’s tackle air pollution at all levels, starting now with the NEC Directive

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

Cyclists in Nantes. [EUROCITIES]

The European Parliament’s environment committee should be ambitious when it votes on the National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) Directive next week, write Lot van Hooijdonk and Karen Vancluysen.

Lot van Hooijdonk is deputy mayor of Utrecht and chair of the EUROCITIES environment forum, and Karen Vancluysen is secretary general of POLIS.

Air pollution is the EU’s biggest environmental health challenge, with WHO figures putting the cost to our economies at €1.4 trillion each year. It requires urgent action. A stronger National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) Directive would go a long way towards protecting our citizens from harmful pollution.

In cities, where 75% of the EU population lives, we have to deal first hand with the consequences of poor air quality. To counter this, we are investing heavily in infrastructure for sustainable transport and cleaner vehicles, and we encourage citizens to choose greener ways to travel, such as walking, cycling and taking public transport. But we cannot do it alone: air pollution can travel long distances and without stringent measures at national level, our efforts are not enough.

That is why, with our networks of European cities and regions, we support binding and more ambitious targets for the national level. The European Parliament and Council are currently discussing the Commission’s proposal to revise the NEC Directive, and we see this as an opportunity to strengthen national efforts to support ours at local level. We are particularly keen to see binding targets by 2025, not just 2030. We agree with Julie Girling MEP, European Parliament rapporteur on the NEC Directive, that “this legislation runs from now until 2030; it’s a long time without any targets. 2025 is a reasonable point by which member states should be able to demonstrate tangible progress.”

Impact assessments conducted by the Commission and Parliament confirm that binding 2025 targets make good sense. They would be supported by the 2030 climate and energy goals agreed by EU leaders last October, which will help reduce emissions. Taking these climate targets into account, the Parliament’s impact assessment suggests reinforcing reduction targets on particulate matter PM2.5 (51% vs 37%), nitrogen oxides (66% vs 56%), and ammonia (29% vs 17%). With these stricter, further-reaching targets, we could improve the air our citizens breathe, and consequently their health, more quickly.

In view of the close link between national emissions and local air quality, we see great potential for better coordinating policies that address these. For example, the more ambitious targets above would better align the timeline and ambition of the NEC Directive with its local counterpart, the Ambient Air Quality Directive. This would in turn allow cities and national governments to better link up local air quality strategies with national air pollution control programmes. Cities, regions and member states all need to be on the same page: consulting local and regional authorities, and in particular major cities, when drafting national air control programmes would help deliver more effective results.

Sharing ideas and experience on air quality management is an important way to improve our efforts, and one in which networks like POLIS and EUROCITIES play an important role. We would like to build on this with exchanges between local, regional and national authorities, supported by the EU.

An EU urban agenda could support such a partnership approach, where all levels of government work together to tackle more effectively the challenges of air pollution in cities.

Together, they could discuss policy and planning at all levels, in areas such as sustainable urban mobility, better public transport and traffic management, access restrictions for polluting vehicles and cleaner vehicles in public fleets.

Given the huge social and financial impact of air pollution, we believe the EU would do well to better coordinate other European policies with air policies, such as under the Energy Union. It is important that energy solutions are assessed not only according to their potential to reduce energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions, but also on their impact on air quality. Take the ‘dieselisation’ of Europe’s car fleet as a lesson to be learned from: while it has improved energy efficiency, it has also aggravated air pollution, especially in cities. We need to avoid making similar mistakes in future, for example with biomass burning. With binding and more ambitious national emissions ceilings, member states would be more incentivised to develop sustainable transport policies and frameworks, for instance by adjusting taxation, as well as promoting alternative fuel vehicles and infrastructure.

While setting overall emissions ceilings is important, we also need to tackle effectively where the pollution is coming from. Currently, cars on our roads are producing up to seven times more emissions than indicated by official type-approval test results. We are therefore impatient to see a quick finalisation of the Real-World Driving Emissions (RDE) test procedure for the Euro 6 emissions standards, with strict, effective rules and swift implementation. The new test method must reflect actual driving conditions, especially in urban areas where stop-start traffic and short distance driving are the norm. Many cities already have low emissions zones in place, but these schemes can’t work without reliable emissions standards at EU level.

Let’s make sure we can all do our bit to ensure cleaner air for healthier citizens and cities: continuing local action, cleaning up cars and setting ambitious national emissions ceilings. 

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