A breath of fresh air: the five things we should do to cut air pollution

The right of EU citizens to breathe clean air is routinely violated. Across the continent, toxic air is linked to more than 500,000 premature deaths each year. And this is not just a problem in a small number of major cities. Limits are being breached in more than 130 cities in 23 of the 28 EU Member States.

Here, we consider five ways to tackle Europe’s air pollution crisis and clean up our toxic air.

1. Stop selling petrol and diesel vehicles

Norway is due to end the sale of conventional cars from 2025 and Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland will follow suit five years later.

France and the UK lag behind with their bans pencilled in for 2040.

An analysis by environmental think tank Green Alliance suggests that bringing forward the UK’s ban by ten years to 2030 would cut nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 40 per cent by 2025.

There is already evidence that bans on polluting vehicles have a significant impact. When Paris banned fossil-fuelled vehicles for a day, air pollution fell by 40 per cent.

2. More Clean Air Zones

City-level policies are significant drivers of change. In the UK, government analysis shows that the introduction of Clean Air Zones, alongside investment in adequate charging infrastructure for low emissions vehicles, will be essential to deliver cleaner air and accelerate the transition to a low emission economy.

‘Clean Air Zones’ are areas where additional measures are taken to improve air quality. This can include banning the most polluting vehicles by creating a ‘Low Emission Zone’, but it could also mean taking other steps, such as retrofitting vehicles, managing traffic flows and, where necessary, rerouting traffic.

Low Emission Zones have been introduced in cities across Europe. The first was introduced in Stockholm in 1996.

3. Swap from diesel to electric vans

This is a big opportunity in the short term. A van emits about five times as much NOx and more than three times as much fine particulate matter (PM2.5) as a car.

Delivery firm UPS has already made over a third of its London vans electric and has plans to upgrade the entire fleet once it has implemented a new ‘intelligent’ approach to charging.

According to transport campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E), vans are responsible for 12% of all EU road transport emissions.

A study commissioned by T&E earlier this year revealed that the lifetime costs of small vans was already the same as dirty diesel equivalents and looks set to fall further.


4. Use agriculture policy to cut fertiliser emissions

Emissions from farms are responsible for a surprising amount of urban air pollution. In cities like Paris, emissions from agriculture can sometimes account for as much as 40% of background air pollution.

The EU’s flagship farming programme – the Common Agricultural Policy, or ‘CAP’ – is currently up for review and campaigners say this is a perfect opportunity to tackle emissions from fertilisers.

After steadily decreasing for a number of years, EU ammonia (NH3) emissions started to rise again since 2014. This is largely due to the use of urea fertilisers.

Spreading fertiliser across fields is associated with seasonal peaks in ammonia concentrations. Fertiliser use in one part of Europe will affect the air quality in another. For example, 19 per cent of the ammonia detected in the air in the UK originates in France.

The EU’s National Emission Ceilings Directive sets absolute caps for ammonia emissions, but even the European Commission accepts that these are insufficient and that further action and new laws are required to cut ammonia emissions, which are not just responsible for harmful air pollution but also for the eutrophication of soils across Europe.

The Commission’s recent ‘Clean Air Outlook’ report concluded:

5. Work with EU partners to reduce transboundary air pollution from other sources, including coal

Beyond ammonia emissions, European action will also be required to tackle a whole host of other transboundary pollutants.

In some countries, as little as half of the fine particulate matter (PM2.5) found in the air is emitted from domestic sources. The rest is blown across from neighbouring countries.

The Europe Beyond Coal campaign has produced a video showing how pollution from coal plants is carried over great distances and across national borders.

Luckily, META has also produced a list of 5 things the EU can do to help take Europe beyond coal!


A version of this article first appeared on InsideTrack, a blog on environmental policy and politics, hosted by Green Alliance.