EU’s new air pollution limits a big step forward but fall short of WHO guidelines

October 28, 2022

Last week the European Commission proposed tighter, binding air pollution limits as part of its revision of EU air quality rules. But does it go far enough?

Last week the European Commission proposed tighter, binding air pollution limits as part of its revision of EU air quality rules. 

The Commission proposal sets out stricter limits for a number of health damaging pollutants including fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions, which mainly come from transport.

Transport & Environment (T&E) and the Clean Cities Campaign (CCC) welcomed this as a step in the right direction but said the Commission missed an opportunity to align limits for concentration of pollutants with the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. 

The CCC pointed out that recent research has shown that the WHO limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) for instance could almost be achieved using tried-and-tested solutions such as zero- and low-emission zones (LEZs) alone. 

Surprisingly, the Commission’s proposal did not include modelling of the impact of LEZs or ZEZs. This is despite the Commission itself saying that the current Ambient Air Quality Directives (AAQD) has already driven the creation of LEZs in cities, with research showing they have been effective in reducing NO2 emissions by up to 44%[1].

“Setting air pollution limits that are not aligned with the latest health science is like suggesting people keep smoking but stick to light cigarettes,” said Barbara Stoll, director of the Clean Cities Campaign. 

Alex Keynes, clean vehicles manager at T&E, added: “It’s not too late for policymakers to set limit values in line with the WHO recommendations. It would help to incentivise these kinds of policies at the local level which would accelerate the shift to zero emission transport and clear air in cities.” 

EU clean air laws have been the main driver for reductions in urban air pollution. Cities now need up-to-date and science-based guidance from the EU to be able to further implement policies that once and for all deliver clean air, says the CCC. 

Alex Keynes concluded: “This is a good step forward, but steps are not enough when it comes to toxic air pollution. The European Parliament and Council need to significantly improve the Commission’s proposal in the coming months.” 

Commission bows to industry pressure on Euro 7

A strong science-based AAQD is now more critical than ever for human health after leaked documents show that the European Commission intends to propose weak and ineffective Euro 7 standards, the EU’s main mechanism for reducing toxic pollution from road transport. 

Pollution from cars, vans and trucks is responsible 70,000 premature deaths in the EU, yet the Commission has bowed to pressure from the car lobby and will allow another 100 million highly polluting cars onto Europe’s roads between now and 2035, when the internal combustion engine will be phased out in the EU.



[1] Mayor of London. (2022). Expanded Ultra low-emission zone – 6 month report. Link 

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