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Improving European Air Quality

Placing healthy cities higher on the EU agenda

The Urban Agenda for the EU – consolidated with the Pact of Amsterdam, agreed on 30 May 2016 by the EU Ministers responsible for Urban Matters – has introduced a new working method of thematic Partnerships being elaborated by partners representing various governance authorities aiming to tackle social challenges by focussing on cities. It aims to promote cooperation between Member States, Cities, the European Commission and other stakeholders, in order to stimulate growth, liveability and innovation in the cities of Europe. The Partnership on Air Quality is one of the 12 priority themes of the “Urban Agenda for the EU”.

The main objective of the Partnership on Air Quality is to improve air quality in cities and bring the ‘healthy city’ higher on the local, national and EU agendas as part of the Urban Agenda. This will be done through contribution to policy assessment in the consultation phase, and to improvement the development and/or of implementation of regulation, funding mechanisms and knowledge at all levels, as well as the coordination between them.

The Members of the Partnership are:

  • Member States: The Netherlands (coordinator), Croatia, Czech Republic, Poland;
  • Cities: Helsinki/HSY (Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority) (FI), London (UK), Utrecht (NL), Milan (IT), Constanta (RO), and Duisburg (DE - Representing the Consortium Clean Air Ruhr Area);
  • Stakeholders: EUROCITIES, HEAL (Health and Environment Alliance);
  • European Commission: DG Regional and Urban policy (coordinator), DG Environment, DG. Research and Innovation, DG Agriculture, DG Growth, the Joint Research Centre (JRC). The Partnership is also actively supported by the URBACT programme, which has an observer status.

Following the scoping exercise of existing regulation, committed resources and knowledge, advice can be given as input for improving the EU policy and funding landscape. The Partnership works on proposals for better regulation (and implementation), funding and knowledge in this area. The first step consisted of the identification of the relevant issues regarding urban air quality focusing on regulation and implementation of regulations; funding and knowledge.

The findings of the Partnership have then been thoroughly discussed among the partners and shared with public stakeholders through an international workshop and a public consultation to gather feedback that has been used to complement the Partnership’s work. Drawing on the evidence gathered to find concrete solutions to the issues identified, the Partnership has developed a series of actions, presented in this plan.

The Partnership’s actions also aim to contribute to the goals of the New Urban Agenda and to the targets set in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Action Number One

Action number one is the identification of gaps in regulation and implementation on air pollutant emission sources.

What is the specific problem?

Air quality is a complex issue. It requires setting of common air quality standards, controlling pollutant sources, legislative as well as non-legislative measures, and effective implementation at national and local level. It also requires coordinated efforts at national, regional and local level.

The overall air policy strategy of the EU is directed towards meeting the Air Quality Guideline Values of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the coming decades (EAP7).

At the EU level, six main instruments can be distinguished as follows.

These Directives (i.e. 2008/50/EC and 2004/107/EC) set air quality standards and requirements to ensure that Member States adequately monitor and/or assess air quality on their territory, in a harmonised and comparable manner. This includes maximum concentrations for 12 key air pollutants deemed to be most relevant (i.e. sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), ozone, benzene, lead, carbon monoxide, arsenic, cadmium, nickel, and benzo(a)pyrene) to be attained across the EU, including an obligation to further reduce the average exposure of the urban population to PM2.5.

This Directive (i.e. 2016/2284/EC) requires national emission inventories and sets national emission reduction targets to limit transboundary pollution for the most important trans- boundary air pollutants (SOx, NOx, PM2.5, NMVOC, and NH3).

These include emission limits for vehicles (EURO standards) and nonroad mobile machinery, fuel standards, energy efficiency standards, the Industrial Emissions Directive, the Eco-design directive, the Sulphur Directive, which regulates the sulphur content of certain liquid fuels mostly addressing SOx from maritime transport, and the Fuel Quality Directive addressing air pollution from the road transport setting additional fuel quality parameters. These approaches also include the Directive on deployment of alternative fuels infrastructure that requires MS to make publicly available electric charging points, hydrogen, LNG and CNG refuelling stations, in order to speed-up deployment of less polluting vehicles.

Monitoring and reporting requirements and requirements to inform the public on emissions and (actual and expected) air quality, (these partly result directly from the above-mentioned Directives).

In addition, two other (non-regulatory) instruments can be mentioned:

  • Funding mechanisms e.g. for innovative “green” or “smart” projects
  • Knowledge transfer, e.g. data, models and other tools for air quality planning, which can be used from national to local levels

The Partnership’s analysis focused on pollutants, as well as on sources that have a proven negative impact on the health of exposed populations, especially in urban environments, as follows.

No regulation exists on black carbon and limited regulation exists on nanoparticles, which are far smaller than the regulated PM10 and PM2.5 particle classes, and are believed to have serious health implications, too.

NOx emissions from vehicles are regulated, but there have been concerns about the effectiveness of Euro emissions limit values, i.e. considering NOx and NO2 real-world driving emissions from Light Duty Vehicles (LDVs), and about the negative effects of tampering practices (i.e. removal of catalyst systems).

Notably road, brake, clutch and tyre wear are currently not regulated, but can contribute to a relevant portion of total non-exhaust trafficrelated PM emissions and of total traffic-related PM emissions in urban environments.

Air pollution from SOx and NOx produced by from international shipping may have accounted, without adopting timely relevant sulphur regulations, for approximately 50,000 premature deaths per year in Europe, according to recent scientific studies. Many actions have been undertaken in recent years to significantly reduce air emissions from ships. Most of these actions have been taken through Annex VI of MARPOL, an international instrument developed through the International Maritime Organization (IMO) that establishes legally binding international standards to regulate specific emissions and discharges generated by ships.

At the EU Level, the Sulphur Directive has been, in a consistent manner with that international instrument, the reference for control of sulphur oxide emissions from ships. Since air pollution from ships continues to increase as the sector grows and its impact to air quality on land can be significant in coastal areas and port cities, it is essential that current and future legislation is adequate and correctly implemented. Land-based emissions – SOx and NOx – on the other hand, particularly from fixed installations, have been reduced dramatically. However, NOx from shipping, which is not yet regulated at EU level, is set to exceed NOx from all EU land-based sources in the coming decade.

Ammonia contributes to the formation of secondary particulate aerosols, an important air pollutant due to its adverse impacts on human health. The most polluting farms are big animal rearing installations with 80% of agricultural emissions coming from 5% of the farms. Measures to reduce ammonia emissions are suggested in the existing regulations for only the largest 3% – the large industrial animal holdings. It is up to the Member States to decide how to distribute the burden. The National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) Directive allows them to take into account impacts on small farms.

Specifically referring to particulate matter emissions to air from biomass heating, which comes primarily from urban areas and is a problem mainly related to the low efficiency of boilers and stoves in households (below 1MW), but also to coal, and oil heating.

Constructing buildings, roads and other infrastructure can have a substantial, temporary impact on local air quality. The most common impacts are increased particulate matter (PM) concentrations, and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. The vast majority of these emissions come from the diesel diggers, generators and other machines operating on sites. Yet this machinery is subject to specific emission regulation, different from the Euro emission standards for road vehicles.

What action is needed?

The Partnership identified the following twofold action to address the issues described above. The first part of the action focuses on better implementation; the second on aspects related to better regulation.

Better implementation:

  1. Encourage MS and local/regional administrations to adopt a continuous improvement approach to sources of PM and NOx (as these are the two pollutants that many MS struggle to legally comply with), taking action wherever possible.
  2. Focus on measures to accelerate the switch to low- and zeroemission vehicles (such as electric buses and cars) and zeroemission modes of transport (e.g. active modes), and to deploy digital and ITS solutions that would facilitate this transition.
  3. Further investigate the possibility to improve coherence of cities’ implementation approaches of Low Emission Zones (LEZs), e.g. via road pricing, speed limits or reducing on-road parking facilities. Collaboration with the Partnership on Urban Mobility will be considered.

Better regulation:

  1. Based on the Partnership’s findings, provide input to EU level policy discussions, for example, to promote additional actions for national governments to remove/retrofit old installations, for local government to improve transport infrastructure, as well as initiatives on car sharing and on negative fiscal incentives for cars.
  2. City, stakeholder and national members of the partnership will set up a multilevel governance working group to provide input to the European Commission and/or established policy processes (including regulatory Committees, as relevant) on relevant policy and regulatory developments, e.g. during the Fitness Check of the EU Ambient Air Quality Directives. The European Commission will act as an observer in this group. The group will not replace other consultation processes put in place by the European Commission.
  3. Collaboration with the Partnership on Urban Mobility and with the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy will be considered.

How to implement the action?

The Partnership’s findings pointed out that EU and national regulatory instruments, and/or the way they are implemented, might not always ensure an adequate and timely reduction of the above list of pollutants, sources and effects of air pollution. Nevertheless, the Partnership also underlines that the search for solutions to the issues falling under the scope of this action will not automatically lead to proposing new EU regulation, which is an option that could occur only in the absence of alternative approaches. The Partnership is aware that this action should not create any expectation on a change in Comitology rules nor any privileged access to legislative processes.

For the activities regarding better implementation, the Partners will carry out studies, consultations in order to formulate recommendations and policy inputs, also trying to liaise with inter alia the Partnership for Urban Mobility and the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.

Partner Role
Greater London Authority Action Coordinator (Representative local level)
The Netherlands Action Coordinator (Representative national level)
Europe (Eurocities, HEAL): Expert input on better implementation and on better regulation
Europe (European Commission): Observer
National/Regional (Partners and other MS/Regions): Expert input on better implementation and on better regulation
Local (Utrecht and other cities): Expert input on better implementation and on better regulation

As regards the activities under better regulation, the Partnership will set up the multilevel governance working group described above. The multilevel working group will try to feed into the preparations of initiatives like the biennial Clean Air Forum and other relevant events, as well as any Commission stakeholders’ meetings related to air quality. Public workshops may be organised to stimulate dialogue between city leaders, member states, EU policy makers and the relevant industries (e.g. transport, energy, waste management, agriculture), notably the car industry. The seminars, based on the findings of the Partnership, will search for cross-sector and multigovernance solutions and seek commitments from the involved partners to rapidly improve air quality in cities.

“almost three quarters of Europeans live in cities, which remain the immediate level of intervention in dealing with the threats to human health coming from pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and ozone”

The multilevel governance working group’s method will be based on the principle of subsidiarity. First, when looking for solutions to mitigate the negatives impacts of pollution, it will begin from the local level. If that is not possible, the search for solutions will be escalated at regional level, then at national level, and so on up to the European level, until a suitable solution is found.

Given the need for a strong multilevel governance dimension for this action, a representative of the local level and a representative of the national level will provide a joint coordination, with the other Partners providing expert input and the European Commission acting as an observer.

Action Number Two

Action Number Two is for better air quality planning (governance).

Almost three quarters of Europeans live in cities, which remain the immediate level of intervention in dealing with the threats to human health coming from pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and ozone.

However, “Air quality planning” in the EU is not always under the responsibility of cities, as the majority of Members States set the responsibility for drafting and adopting Air Quality Action Plans (AQAP) from Art. 23 of Directive 2008/50/EC at regional or even at national level. In the meantime, the measures defined by the AQAP should address different sectors, whose enforcement and implementation are of competence of urban, regional or national authorities, as appropriate.

These elements raise two needs:

  1. to improve the coordination between different levels of governance (national regional, local) involved, respecting specific situations and the subsidiarity principle; and
  2. to improve the coordination within cities between air, health, energy, transport and urban planning, taking into account the contributions that could come from the involvement of citizens in urban policy development.

Furthermore, the work of the Partnership has allowed identifying issues of concern for many cities relating to the development and implementation of Cities Air Quality Action Plans. Notably, it has been found:

  1. That access to knowledge and experiences (e.g. on process optimisation, pitfalls, stakeholder interactions, governance, monitoring, etc.) from front-runners cities having already designed and implemented AQAPs is often crucial to avoid inefficiencies, and that such knowledge should be improved.
  2. Likewise, that knowledge of best practices in the selection, design, funding, and implementation of air quality measures is essential to facilitate the choice of the relatively most effective measures for the AQAPs, and that such knowledge should be improved.

The Partnership identified the following action to tackle the problem described above:

  1. Development of a Code of Good Practices for Cities Air Quality Action Plans aiming to present examples of consistent interpretation of the content listed under Annex XV, Section A of Directive 2008/50/EU.
  2. Assemble and keep updated a register of examples of best practice in urban air quality planning, in order to encourage the dissemination of knowledge on relevant air quality measures and facilitate comparative analysis on their relative effectiveness.
Partner Role
Milan Action Leader
Europe (JRC): Coordination of sharing register of air quality regional-local measures
Europe (EUROCITIES, HEAL): Expert input/review of Code of Good Practices
Europe (URBACT): Expert input/review, based on the experience of URBACT Action Planning and Implementation Networks
Expert input/review, based on the experience of URBACT Action Planning and Implementation Networks Promotion of the use of Code of Good Practices of Cities Air Quality Plans and dissemination of best practices and facilitation of comparative analysis on their relative effectiveness between cities and different governance levels
National (Croatia): Expert input/review of Code of Good Practices. Croatia participates in FAIRMODE work, notably WP5 – Management practices (which includes planning), led by JRC. Croatia can share knowledge and experiences on this with the rest of the Partnership.
Local (Utrecht): Expert input/review of Code of Good Practices
Local (HSY/Helsinki): Expert input/review of Code of Good Practices, incl. write a chapter about stakeholder and public consultation. HSY/Helsinki participates in FAIRMODE work, notably WP5 – Management practices, and can share the related AQ Planning knowledge and experiences with the Partnership.
Local (Milan): Coordination of the development of Code of Good Practices in cooperation with experienced cities Expert input/review of Code of Good Practices Milan participates in FAIRMODE work, notably WP5 – Management practices, and can share the related AQ Planning knowledge and experiences with the Partnership.
All partners Provide input on best practices to the Register of air quality regional-local measures shared by JRC
  1. Development and dissemination of a Code of Good Practices for Cities Air Quality Action Plans in cooperation with experienced cities. All partners can provide expert input and reviewing.
  2. Promote the dissemination of best practices in urban air quality planning between different governance levels (European/National/ Regional/Urban), and between cities fostering the use of state-of-theart methodologies, tools and data for air quality planning. This work could be carried out in cooperation with the Forum for Air Quality Modelling (FAIRMODE). The Partners involved in the implementation of this action and communicated to the stakeholders will define best practices selection mechanisms and criteria in a transparent manner.
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Air quality is the main determining environmental factor for the quality of life in cities. The main objective of the Partnership is thus to place the healthy city higher on the EU agenda and to help attain healthy urban environments. Based on the input of the different partners during several meetings between December 2015 and June 2016, four concrete topics have been formulated to focus on until mid-2017.
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