POLIS welcomes new EU deal to strengthen Air Quality standards

Last week, the Council presidency and the European Parliament provisionally agreed on stricter EU air quality standards, aiming for zero pollution by 2050 and aligning with World Health Organization recommendations. Local and regional authorities play a crucial role but require strong policy support for effective emission reduction and cleaner air.

Good news! Under the new regulations, co-legislators have reached an agreement to implement more stringent EU air quality standards by 2030, incorporating limit and target values more aligned with the WHO guidelines. The revised Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD) encompasses a range of air pollutants, including fine particles (PM10 and PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), benzo(a)pyrene (BaP), arsenic, lead, nickel, and others, establishing limit-values for each. Notably, annual limit values for PM2.5 and NO2, which have significant impacts on human health, would decrease from 25 µg/m³ to 10 µg/m³ and from 40 µg/m³ to 20 µg/m³, respectively.


A comprehensive risk

The provisional agreement lets member states extend deadlines under strict conditions like specific climatic factors, highlighting broader implications for social justice due to the disproportionate impact of air pollution on Europe’s vulnerable citizens. The reduction of transport emissions is one of the key objectives of the European Commission who, on 12 May 2021, adopted the Zero Pollution Action Plan, a key component of the European Green Deal. The zero-pollution vision for 2050 is for air, water and soil pollution to be reduced to levels no longer considered harmful to health and natural ecosystems.

Eventhough the EU has had strict measures in place to reduce air pollution, and emissions have decreased significantly since 1990, variation among cities is quite extensive, and several local and regional authorities still deal with levels of harmful air pollutants that are above the limit-values set in the AAQD. This will become an even bigger issue in the future - according to the latest data from the European Environment Agency, in 2021 97% of the EU’s urban population was still exposed to concentrations of PM2.5 above the latest guidelines of the WHO, as well as other pollutants like NO2 and ozone.


The urban focus

A large part of transport-related polluting activities is concentrated in urban areas. Ensuring levels of air quality that comply with the new regulations is going to one of the major challenges that our cities and regions will be facing in the near future, but this requires technical know-how, adequate resources, and a strong political commitment.

Without these enabling conditions in place, local and regional authorities risk being left alone, and will struggle to implement measures to reduce air pollution from road traffic: the promotion of walking, cycling, and use of public transport, the adoption of sustainable mobility and parking strategies, the implementation of Low-Emission and Zero-Emission Zones, or the e-mobility transition. But the fight for clean air should not be solely in the hands of cities - there are no borders in air pollution, and local, regional, and national authorities must work together with the EU in a coordinated way, ensuing consistency within the policy and legislative framework.