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Europe’s cities are tackling their air pollution – but national governments need to do more

Despite three quarters of Europeans living, working and travelling around the continent’s cities, it’s fair to say we don’t always give a thought to the quality of the air we breathe. Perhaps it will cross your mind as you weave through rush hour traffic on your bike; but for the most part it’s a hidden threat.

Yet it’s also a serious one, estimated to cause 400,000 premature deaths in Europe and costing our economies €1.4trn each year. We’re risking our health and spending vast amounts – so what’s being done to address the problem?

At EU level, MEPs have just approved binding reductions targets on some of the most harmful pollutants in our air. While this must still be agreed by EU member states, it means that national governments will be obliged to reduce these pollutants within the limits by 2025. The targets are fixed, but they can choose how to meet them.  

This is a really important step for cities and their citizens. Air pollution doesn’t respect borders, and many pollution sources are beyond city control – so setting binding limits at national level will help back up clean air measures at local level, too.


And there are many of these. Think of cyclists’ paradise Copenhagen. When the city realised that cycling was not as popular for journeys of over 5km, it set about creating a network of bike “superhighways”. These are designed to provide maximum comfort and convenience, with staggered traffic lights and footrests at regular intervals. It’s no wonder so many Copenhageners choose to travel by bike.

Public transport is also an important part of the solution. Cities are working hard to make sure that taking the metro, train, bus or tram is as easy as possible. The Spanish city of Gijon is one of a number of cities that have introduced smart city cards. This single card allows users to do anything from taking out a library book to hiring a bike or paying a bus fare.

Edinburgh has unveiled a fleet of hybrid buses covering some of its most polluted commuter routes. They are not only environmentally friendly, but offer the kind of luxury travel many commuters can only dream of, with comfy seats and on-board wifi. Taking the bus doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

Despite these and local measures all over Europe, our air still won’t be clean enough: there is only so much cities can do. So it’s important that national governments to do their bit – and while the new EU targets are a step in the right direction, they could be more ambitious. This is an expensive issue, not just in terms of money but health – so surely it’s worth aiming high?

A lot of the responsibility falls to the national level, whose decisions directly impact on the air we breathe in cities. Motorways are a national competence, but when they cut through cities, the implications are felt locally. Setting speed limits on the motorway? That’s decided at national level too.

And the impact of emissions from agriculture needs to be looked at too. Ammonia from fertilisers and manure is jeopardising our air quality, as is methane from livestock “emissions”. Both of these pollutants are covered by the new EU targets, though not as strictly as we’d like.  

And if you haven’t heard enough about car emissions lately, you’re about to hear more. Cars on our roads are emitting up to seven times the pollution allowed by EU legislation, because official lab tests are unrealistic. More effective testing is needed to reflect the reality of urban driving conditions, where start-stop driving is the norm.

EU member states have agreed on a “real driving emissions” test procedure, which will be implemented in two progressively stricter phases between 2017 and 2021. But these rules still mean that only one sample vehicle will be tested, after which millions of the same type are approved for sale. Spot checks on cars on the road would help reveal if they really are all clean enough. Stricter testing would help make low emission zones, like those in London, Milan and Berlin, more effective.   

So while these new targets are good news, Europe’s big cities are aiming higher. We are doing what we can – but with more ambition at national and EU level, we can do more. Because surely we all want to breathe clean air?   

 Anna Lisa Boni is the secretary general of EUROCITIES, the network of major European cities.
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