Air pollution is estimated to lead to about 400,000 premature deaths across Europe every year and awareness is growing about its nefarious effects on people’s health. Thanks to the work of campaigners and high-profile cases such as the tragic death of a young girl in the UK – public authorities across Europe seem to be taking action at last. But exactly how are these commitments being converted into real action in cities around Europe? And are the measures being taken sufficiently tough to protect those most at risk?

In December 2020, air pollution was ruled to have played a part in the death of a nine-year-old asthma sufferer, Ella Kissi-Debrah, in February 2013. The inquest into Ella’s death found levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) near her home in London exceeded World Health Organization (WHO) and European Union guidelines. The coroner concluded Ella had been exposed to “excessive” levels of pollution, the main source of which was traffic emissions.

This ruling marked a watershed moment in the fight against air pollution in the UK. Following her daughter’s death, Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, launched a campaign to prevent other families from experiencing similar tragedies, raising awareness of the dangerous impact and risks of air pollution for health and calling for a clean air act in the wake of the landmark ruling.

In a report dated 21 April 2021, the coroner, Philip Barlow, wrote that during Ella’s illness between 2010 and 2013, “there was a recognised failure to reduce the level of nitrogen dioxide to within the limits set by EU and domestic law which possibly contributed to her death. Ella’s mother was not given information by health professionals about the health risks of air pollution and its potential to exacerbate asthma. If she had been given this information, she would have taken steps which might have prevented Ella’s death.” Barlow called on the UK government for a law to prevent future deaths. “The national limits for particulate matter are set at a level far higher than the WHO guidelines. The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for particulate matter and that the WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements. Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK,” he wrote.

Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, launched a campaign to prevent other families from experiencing similar tragedies.

Responding to the coroner’s recommendations, the government announced on Clean Air Day 2021 that it would take action, aiming to have new legal air pollution limits in place by October 2022. Kissi-Debrah welcomed the move but said the new legal limits should come into force sooner and criticised the lack of urgency in the government’s actions.

EU law to reduce national emissions

Beyond the UK, air pollution is also moving up the agenda in other countries and at the European level. Data from the European Environment Agency shows that almost all Europeans still suffer from air pollution, leading to about 400,000 premature deaths across the continent.

Before Britain left the European Union, it was part of a major piece of EU legislation called the National Emissions Reduction Commitments Directive. Under the EU Directive, EU member states have made commitments to reduce their emissions of pollutants by 2030. The EU’s expectation is that, when fully implemented, it will reduce the negative health impacts of air pollution by almost 50 per cent by 2030.

However, a European Commission report in June 2020 has sounded the alarm bells about failings in its implementation, pointing out that “most Member States are at risk of not complying with their 2020 or 2030 emission reduction commitments.” In its press release, the Commission adds that “effective implementation of clean air legislation forms an essential contribution to ‘a zero-pollution ambition for a toxic-free environment’ announced by the Commission in the European Green Deal and related initiatives.”

By adopting the EU Directive, EU member states agreed to reduce their emissions of five pollutants (nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC), sulphur dioxide (SO2), ammonia (NH3) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5)) by 2020 and 2030. EU legislation requires them to prepare a national air pollution control programme outlining how they will meet their emissions reduction targets in all sectors, including domestic heating and agriculture.

Only Belgium and Slovakia on track to meet their commitments

In a report released in December 2020, the European Environment Bureau (EEB), a network of environmental citizens’ groups with 160 members in more than 35 countries, paints a bleak picture of the situation. The EEB’s analysis shows that only two member states (Belgium and Slovakia) are on track to meet the targets for the decade between 2020 and 2029, while only Belgium is on course to satisfy its 2030 commitments. The EEB therefore wants the European Commission to exert maximum pressure to rectify this situation.

“With our health and our environment at stake, it is a scandal that all but two member states have fallen so short of their commitments to reduce air pollution over this critical decade,” said the EEB’s Senior Policy Officer for Air and Noise Margherita Tolotto. “We call on the European Commission to start infringement procedures against all the member states which have failed to submit a lawful programme.”

With regard to infringement procedures, Stefan Šipka a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, explained that, where EU member states do not meet mandatory EU rules, the European Commission can take the case to the European Court of Justice, where national governments could face fixed fines or daily penalties if they were to be found in breach of the rules.

This is very important for many reasons. Firstly, driving up standards of air quality helps ensure that people are healthier, which is good for them as individuals but also good for the economy as they will be less likely to be off sick. Secondly, national governments across the EU need to comply with an EU law that they signed up to or they risk losing credibility vis-à-vis citizens.

On the plus side, there have been improvements in air quality in Europe, as noted by the European Environment Agency (EEA). In its 2020 Air Quality in Europe report, the EEA writes that: “Thanks to better air quality, around 60,000 fewer people died prematurely due to fine particulate matter pollution in 2018, compared with 2009. For nitrogen dioxide, the reduction is even greater as premature deaths have declined by about 54 per cent over the last decade. The continuing implementation of environmental and climate policies across Europe is a key factor behind the improvements.” The EEA adds that, “since 2000, emissions of key air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (NOx), from transport have declined significantly, despite growing mobility demand and associated increase in the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

Brussels: NGOs push for more ambitious targets

Belgium, as we saw earlier, is on track to meet its emissions reduction targets. According to EU law, the annual average concentration of NO2 must not exceed a specific measurement, i.e. 40 µg/m³. A Belgian NGO called Les Chercheurs d’Air [literally the “air seekers”] says that, in 2020, it was the first time the limit hasn’t been breached in any of the official monitoring stations, mainly because of the lockdown and teleworking measures taken due to COVID. Yet, as the only safe level of air pollution is 0, the NGO argues that this limit should be brought down to 20 µg/m³.

Generally speaking, the reduction in nitrogen oxides (NOx) in Europe is clearly a positive development given that, as noted by Les Chercheurs d’Air, the pollutant, which comes from road traffic, has particularly damaging effects on health such as weakening lung functions, risks related to asthma and chronic bronchitis and an increase in the risk of obesity and diabetes.

Les Chercheurs d’Air is campaigning hard for better air quality along with organisations such as Greenpeace Belgium and Client Earth. Pierre Dornier, the founder of the NGO, explained that his organisation works hard to ensure that air pollution issues stay on the agenda of politicians and in the public eye, helps people understand the issues and follow the latest political discussions. The NGO works with other organisations to mobilise citizens and does things like lobby for the creation of a zero-emission zone, more cycle lanes and lobby for car parking spaces to be removed.

He said that under the current plan in Brussels, which will be reviewed soon, vehicles powered by diesel will be banned from 2030 and vehicles powered by petrol will be banned from 2035, which is not at all ambitious in his opinion (in Paris diesel vehicles won’t be allowed anymore from 2024 and petrol ones from 2030). He also said that discussions were ongoing, including with Wallonia and Flanders authorities and other stakeholders such as car lobbies, for the Brussels Region to introduce a “distance tax” (based on a vehicle’s emissions, with the principle being that the further you drive, the more you pay) via a so-called “Smart move” programme.

Les Chercheurs d’Air itself is running a public awareness project where it gives “citizen scientists” equipment to measure air quality in various parts of Brussels (e.g. near schools). The project began in October 2020 and will end in October 2021. It is not yet known when and how the results will be released.

London: Voters signal tackling pollution a priority

The British government has put the EU’s National Emissions Ceilings Directive into UK law. However, now that Britain is outside the European Union, the crucial enforcement part of the EU law will no longer apply, says Ian Wingrove, press spokesperson for Jenny Jones, a Green member of the second chamber of the UK’s Parliament, the House of Lords, where she has introduced a Clean Air Bill. That clearly removes one avenue for legal redress where the UK does not meet its commitments.

Now that Britain is outside the European Union, the crucial enforcement part of the EU law will no longer apply.

As Wingrove explained, in the early 2000s, air pollution was not much of an issue in London politics. “It was in the 2012 London mayoral elections that air pollution started registering as a very important issue in London,” he said. “For years, the Green party were the only politicians campaigning strongly on this issue. Air pollution was a key issue in the London elections, with the results showing the clear desire of the voters for action.”

Among the major achievements of air pollution campaigners so far has been Transport for London’s “ultra-low emission zone”, which currently covers central London. The principle is that vehicles not meeting the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) standards must pay a daily fee to drive in the zone. Sadiq Khan, the recently re-elected mayor of London, has recommitted to expanding the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in October this year to reduce toxic air pollution and protect public health. However, Khan is still determined to push ahead with massive road projects for the capital, such as the Silvertown Tunnel – which Green members of London’s local assembly strongly oppose.

A key player in what London has achieved in improving its air quality is Simon Birkett, Founder and Director of Clean Air in London. Birkett has also represented air pollution stakeholders on the steering group for the United Nations Environment Programme’s sixth global environment outlook.

“In the past, London’s Clean Air Act [of 1956] was about getting rid of the ‘great smog’ caused by domestic coal burning and factories in London. In the period up until now, the evidence about the negative effects of pollutants such as particulate matter and NOx [from diesel] has built up. The “dieselgate” scandal [where Volkswagen was caught faking emissions data] has increased the appetite for action and has been effective in making people upgrade their vehicles,” says Birkett. He explained that the key for success in campaigning has been to build up public understanding via articles and blogs plus legal pressure from organisations such as Client Earth.

London’s May 2021 mayoral elections were, as local, regional, national, and European elections will be in the future, key moments for voters to move the air pollution agenda forwards. In a video ahead of the elections, Birkett called on mayoral candidates to commit to new World Health Organisation guidelines (due out in July), build public understanding of air pollution and climate change, ban diesel and promote walking and cycling, support a new Clean Air Act that takes account of modern fuels and technologies and show leadership on air pollution at the next UN climate change talks, the COP 26, later this year. That seems to be a good blueprint for other campaigners looking to have an influence on future elections.


Looking to the future, solutions relating to cycling and taxing cars are not the only ones. Governments and municipal authorities can and should also invest in public transport (e.g. buses running on renewable energy), green spaces or heating and insulation.

Long-term exposure to air pollutants causes cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, which have both been identified as risk factors for death in Covid-19 patients.

In terms of the links between the coronavirus pandemic and air quality, the European Environment Agency 2020 report notes “60 per cent reductions of certain air pollutants in many European countries where lockdown measures were implemented in the spring of 2020”. Whilst the report states that more research is needed on the link between air pollution and the severity of Covid-19 infections, it notes that long-term exposure to air pollutants causes cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, which have both been identified as risk factors for death in Covid-19 patients.

Stefan Šipka noted that the cleaner air may be linked to people changing their transport habits but added: “When we go back to ‘normality’, will this be an old [pre-Covid] normality or a new normality where the air we breathe is clean. That’s an issue for municipalities, as well as the EU and national governments.” He also drew attention to the potential link between higher pollution levels and lower immunity/more exposure to disease.

And, without going into specific details of specific pollutants, he argued that the EU needs to move its air quality standards, which are currently less stringent than World Health Organisation (WHO) standards, closer to the latest WHO standards.

As can be seen, whilst there have been improvements in air quality across Europe, there is still much to be done. The European Commission is pushing for more to be done. In May, the Commission adopted an EU Action Plan entitled Towards Zero Pollution for Air, Water and Soil. Its sets out a vision for 2050 for a world where pollution is reduced to levels that are no longer harmful to human health and natural ecosystems, as well as the steps to get there.

Improving air quality to reduce the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution by 55 per cent is one of the EU Action Plan’s key 2030 targets in the context of reducing pollution. And one of the Action Plan’s flagship initiatives is to align air quality standards more closely to the latest recommendations of the World Health Organization. Making the transition towards environmentally sustainable energy and mobility solutions will of course need considerable financial investment but the potential benefits are huge. This is a golden opportunity to make cities healthier and safer.

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