‘Like telling people to keep smoking but stick to light cigarettes’

Alex Keynes — June 10, 2023

Why MEPs must rectify the EU’s failure to align air quality standards with WHO pollution limits.

Air quality is the biggest environmental threat to human health: a silent and often invisible killer that causes more than at least 275,00 premature deaths every year in Europe. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions, emitted chiefly from road transport, alone are responsible for 64,000 deaths. As well as causing various illnesses such as lung cancer, strokes, asthma, NO2 is suspected to damage every organ in the human body. Recent data from the European Environmental Agency (EEA) also reveals the devastating impact on our childrens’ health, with over 1,200 deaths in people under 18 estimated to be caused by pollution every year. 

While EU rules and regulations have delivered improvements over the last decade, the current Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD) – that sets limits for toxic pollutants, including NO2 and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – dates all the way back to 2008. When, in 2021 the World Health Organisation (WHO) updated its air quality guidelines for policymakers, the case to align the EU limits with the most robust health assessment conducted in 15 years was clear.

Unfortunately, when the European Commission finally came with its proposal for a new AAQD in October last year, it proposed limits that would allow pollution levels twice as high as those recommended by the WHO (20µg/m³ compared to 10µg/m³ for NO2 and 10µg/m³ compared to 5µg/m³ for PM2.5). Setting pollution limits that are not aligned with the latest health science is estimated to amount to 114,000 additional premature deaths a year in European cities and is akin to a doctor suggesting people keep smoking but rather stick to light cigarettes.

The good news is that it is not too late for MEPs and national governments to strengthen the proposed limit values, and new research, commissioned by Transport & Environment and the Clean Cities Campaign, shows that more ambitious limits are in fact feasible. 

New modelling, undertaken by independent experts at Air Quality Consultants Ltd. looked at the impact of different policies aimed at reducing road transport emissions in the most polluted traffic hotpots in five EU cities (Madrid, Paris, Milan, Warsaw and Brussels). 

The research found that the introduction of zero-emission zones (ZEZs) – where only active travel and emission-free vehicles are allowed – would bring overall emission concentrations much closer to the 10μg/m3 limit defined by the WHO (with levels ranging from 13.6 µg/m3 in Brussels to 23 µg/m3 in Milan and Warsaw). Crucially, this is before taking account of additional reductions through other policies or from other sources such as industry, energy and agriculture, which contribute significantly to NO2 – meaning still much lower concentrations are highly achievable.

The results also show that, with the introduction of an ambitious low-emission zone (LEZ) allowing in only the most recent Euro 6d petrol and diesel vehicles (in addition to active and zero-emission mobility), the targets proposed by the Commission (20 µg/m³ for NO2 and 10 µg/m³ for PM2.5) are well within reach. Two cities – Madrid and Brussels – are very nearly compliant already in 2027, three years ahead of the proposed 2030 deadline, highlighting the absurdity of the push by right-wing groups in the European Parliament, including members of the European People’s Party (EPP) and European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), to delay these already weak targets to 2035.

Local governments are increasingly turning to these policies to deliver clean air for their citizens. There are already 325 LEZs in place across Europe, with more than 500 LEZs and 35 ZEZs set to be introduced by 2030.

Despite LEZs and ZEZs being an effective and increasingly popular policy to cut emissions, the Commission missed a trick by not including them in their impact assessment for the proposal, which looked at the feasibility of authorities meeting different pollution targets. The proposal consequently underestimates the feasibility of meeting more ambitious targets by missing out on a key policy tool which will help member states achieve future limit values.

Cleaning up the air we breathe, particularly in cities, is also a question of social justice. Air pollution has been shown to hit vulnerable groups, including people on lower incomes, the hardest. Not only are lower income groups more exposed to toxic air pollution and suffer more from the health effects, but they are much less likely to own and drive a car. There are also many policy solutions that can further combine clean air and equity, including scrappage schemes, reduced public transport fares and social leasing for EVs.

The revision of the AAQD is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that the law and the science are aligned and the case to act is compelling. MEPs in the European Parliament’s lead Environment committee should take note of these new findings and vote in favour of science-based WHO-aligned limit values when the committee votes on their amendments on 27 June.

This artice was first pubished by EurActiv

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