The European Commission’s air quality package is an opportunity to improve the liveability and competitiveness of Europe’s cities. The European Parliament and the Council must seize it, writes James McKay.

The European Commission’s air quality package is an opportunity to improve the liveability and competitiveness of Europe’s cities. The European Parliament and the Council must seize it, writes James McKay.

James McKay is the cabinet member for a Green, Safe and Smart City at Birmingham City Council. He chairs the environment forum of Eurocities, the network of major European cities.

The Commission proposal to revise EU air policy comes at a crucial time. While air quality has improved over the past decades, the air we breathe in Europe is still not as clean as it should be. In fact, most EU member states do not meet the hourly or daily limit values of the Ambient Air Quality Directive for certain air pollutants at all of their measuring stations.

The centrepiece of the Commission’s proposal, a revision of the National Emission Ceilings Directive, can make a vital contribution to fixing this problem. The directive sets upper limits for the emissions of major pollutants over a year in each EU country. Each member state has to decide how it is going to comply. Postponed several times already, the overhaul of the directive should provide the necessary guidance and pressure for member states to adjust their policies and lower overall emission levels. This is indispensable to improving urban air quality, the health of our citizens, and the attractiveness of our cities.

Member states have considerable levers at their disposal. Their tax policies can incentivise cleaner or dirtier fuels and technologies for road vehicles and heating installations. National policy affects how people and goods travel medium and long distances. National energy policy largely determines how much pollution is created in the production of electricity and heat.

These are good reasons for a strong regulation on national emissions ceilings. The ceilings the Commission is proposing for 2020 would meet the levels set in the international Gothenburg Protocol, which the EU has already signed up to. Stricter national emissions ceilings would apply by 2030, with intermediate goals for 2025. It is essential that Parliament and the Council these targets. We need to lower overall emission levels further if we want to fix local air quality hotspots in cities.

Cities are particularly affected by air pollution, most notably from the transport sector. Although urban density fosters a dynamic economy and enables resource efficiency, we need to be proactive in controlling downsides like air pollution. Cities continue to take local action to improve air quality, for example by providing better public transport, promoting walking and cycling, managing traffic efficiently, creating low emission and congestion zones, cleaning up public vehicle fleets and renewing heating systems.

But unfortunately the causes of air pollution are often outside cities’ control. Many emitters are regulated by European legislation and standards. This is true of the Euro standards for cars, trucks and buses; legislation on construction machinery, diesel powered locomotives and other non-road mobile machinery, and emissions from heating installations, ships and industry. National policies and emissions from agriculture also significantly affect air quality.

A particular problem for cities is that current Euro emission standards for road vehicles have not delivered the emissions reductions expected, especially in the urban reality of short distance travel and stop-start traffic. We need to make emission tests for cars, trucks and buses more realistic to reflect actual driving conditions in urban areas. Local actions like the introduction of low emission zones and the replacing of older buses or taxis will become more effective if and when cleaner vehicles become available. We also look forward to more effective EU and international standards for other sources of pollution, like construction machinery, heating installations and ships. In turn these standards can drive innovation and create a new opportunity for green growth by raising the bar.

Such new standards will take years to come into force, and even longer to have a significant effect on the air we breathe in cities. In the meantime, our cities cannot and will not wait around. We must continue to act. The Commission’s proposal to use EU structural and investment funds and the LIFE programme for improving air quality measures recognises that and can help cities do even more by learning from one another. But we can only do the job by working together with the EU, with member states and with regional authorities.

The Commission has served the first ball by proposing improvements at national level. That ball is now in the Council and the European Parliament’s court. I encourage them to be ambitious and adopt a National Emissions Ceilings Directive that is strong and strict enough to help us achieve cleaner air in our cities.