UIA Air Quality
Despite considerable progress in the past decades, ambient air pollution remains the number one environmental cause of death in the EU, still leading to about 400.000 premature deaths each year in the EU due to elevated levels of fine particles, nitrogen dioxide and ozone. Air pollution also continues to harm ecosystems as more than halve of the EU territory is exposed to excess nitrogen deposition (eutrophication) and ozone concentrations. This causes reduced biodiversity, crop yields and other material damage.

EU environmental policy focuses on developing and implementing a clean air policy framework that reinforces national, regional and local policies for those aspects of the air quality problem that Member States cannot handle effectively or efficiently alone. EU policies also aim at implementing the Union's international obligations in the field of air pollution, and on integrating environmental protection requirements into, for example, the industry, energy, transport and agriculture sectors.

Figures illustrating the importance and backgrounds of ambient air pollution can be found here.

The Partnership on "Air Quality" of the Urban Agenda for the EU aims to improve air quality in cities and to bring the 'healthy city' higher on the local, national and EU agenda.

Relevance for and role of urban authorities

Urban authorities are best placed to implement measures as they know the local situation and control a range of instruments such as urban planning, infrastructure/traffic management, housing permits, parking policy etc., which allows them to steer and promote innovative solutions. They will generally control local budgets and employ the staff that will have to do any implementation and to take or enforce measures in the case of smog episodes or long term air quality plans.

In many Member States city authorities are either responsible for developing, implementing and evaluating official air quality plans under Directive 2008/50/EC or for city air quality plans that are linked to official regional air quality plans under Directive 2008/50/EC. Even if there are official regional air quality plans, cities often play a major role as they tend to be the big economic centre of the region, with a concentration of population, traffic and industry. The fact that exceedances of PM and NO2 in many cities in many countries persist, despite air quality action plans, indicate that innovative solutions and improvements in the approach are necessary: a better insight in where and when the air pollution problems may occur and how innovative solutions can contribute to solutions would be very welcome.

Prompts for urban authorities

It should be stressed that healthy living and urban air quality can be improved by mitigation of the relevant emission sources of air pollutants or their precursors. Urban air quality is not only influenced by urban sources (i.e. traffic, domestic heating, industry) but also by sources situated outside the city. This so called background air quality is composed of/influenced by the emissions from non-urban emission sources such as agriculture, (inland) shipping, natural sources and emissions in distant (urban) areas. Decisions on which urban source could best (cost-effectively) be mitigated, requires good data on the background sources (which determine the background concentration and the city’s own contribution to the air quality). In addition, air pollution in an urban environment is not homogeneous. In any urban environment hotspots occur, which can be related to various sources. High-resolution modelling could help identifying these hotspots and allow far more precise and more cost-effective measures that are best suited for that micro environment.

When identifying innovative solutions, urban authorities are invited to take note of and build on lessons learnt as described in the report from the European Environment Agency on air implementation in 12 cities and from projects done under the LIFE programme.

Without being prescriptive in terms of the types of projects expected, cities are invited to consider in particular the following themes and issues:

  • develop and test tools to establish better source inventories of air pollution and high resolution modelling tools to identify urban air pollution hot spots;
  • promote low or no emission modes of transport such as cleaner fuel mobility, better connection with public transport, instruments for different modes of transport, innovative modality options like e-bikes, cargo bikes or car sharing
  • healthy designs of public areas stimulating cycling and walking
  • Citizen Science (measuring air quality with small yet sufficiently accurate measuring devices in order to create a large urban dataset on air quality, establishing local hotspots)
  • behaviour change and public participation projects (e.g. Smarter Labs)
  • nature-based solutions in cities (e.g. trees and plants for air quality, but based on evidence of air quality benefits)
  • innovative local and regional financing mechanisms (taxation, PPP's ,…) that further stimulate the uptake of low-emission solutions by citizens (mobility and housing) and industries.
  • innovative approaches to unlock policy/political bottlenecks to boost implementation of innovation based solutions/technology to improve air quality.