In this interview, János Ádám Karácsony (HU/EPP) answers seven questions on the Future of the EU Clean Air policy in the framework of the zero-pollution ambition, one of the key priorities of the European Green Deal. The member of the Local Government of Tahitótfalu and CoR rapporteur on clean air calls for a revision of the current EU legislation on air quality and stresses that an improvement of air quality requires closer and more effective cooperation between all levels of government. At the request of the European Commission, the CoR's opinion on clean air, adopted in July 2020, provides a local and regional perspective to the new EU Action Plan towards a Zero Pollution Ambition for air, water and soil, which will be presented in 2021.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) – like the 2018 air quality report by the European Court of Auditors – describes air pollution as the greatest environmental risk to health in the world and in the EU. How do you think the COVID-19 outbreak has changed this situation and what role should air policy play in the EU's recovery strategy?
Although we have experienced a temporary air-quality improvement during the pandemic, air pollution is still a major threat to human health. Due to the significant reduction of road and urban traffic during quarantine, as well as a decrease in industrial production and other economic and social activities, citizens have enjoyed healthier air and less noise in their communities. We have collectively experienced what a healthier environment is and have better understood that reduced traffic, more open public spaces and nature-based solutions are essential for everyone's well-being. We must not forget as well that there is a possible proven correlation between air pollution and the gravity of a COVID-19 infection. Overall, we now see wider and stronger support to fight air pollution and building a healthier environment. Both go hand in hand and must be amongst the top priorities of the EU's recovery plan.
The European Committee of the Regions gave support to an important point of your recently adopted opinion that relates to the European Commission's announcement to align more closely EU air quality standards to the WHO guidelines, which are currently being revised. Do you think there is a need to revise EU legislation on air quality as well? What are the main difficulties when it comes to implementing EU legislation on air quality today and how could we improve it in the context of the COVID-19?
The current EU legislation on air quality dates back from 2008. It is more than a decade ago and it definitely needs revision. Even though it has shown to be effective, at least partially, we need to tackle specific weaknesses such as the lack of vertical and proper horizontal cooperation. On the 'vertical side', we must reinforce EU legislation so as to better control air pollution. The best way of achieving cleaner air is by preventing pollution and, therefore, by reducing polluting emissions at source. In that context, we have proposed to extend the regulation to inland shipping, non-exhaust road transport emissions (brake and tyre wear), diesel (urban power) generators, aviation, and small combustion plants (such as residential wood- and coal-burning stoves and boilers). On the horizontal plane, EU-wide sectoral regulations can ensure a more level playing field, as stricter reduction requirements on local emissions may have adverse economic effects. We must also prevent pollution from being shifted to other locations, e.g. between neighbouring cities, countries or continents. For instance, the export of diesel cars from Western European cities that ban their use to Eastern Europe, Africa or other parts of the world is actually not eliminating pollution, but simply shifting it to other locations.
It is often said that "pollution does not stop at borders". Would an action plan at the EU level better tackle this problem? What would be the role for local and regional authorities in such action plan?
Let us not forget that air pollution has multiple sources: natural, trans-boundary, national, regional and local, even at a street level. To combat air pollution, we must reduce emissions at all levels and each level needs to assume responsibility. An EU-level action plan can definitely serve this goal. We therefore warmly welcome the European Green Deal, its zero-pollution ambition for a toxic-free environment – one of three priorities mentioned by Virginijus Sinkevičius, the European Commissioner for the Environment – and, above all, the zero-pollution action plan for air, water and soil to be adopted in 2021. Effective improvement of air quality will require closer and more effective cooperation and communication between all levels of government. For instance, regional authorities can play a coordinating role between the local and national levels. At the local level, municipalities are best placed to control local sources of pollution and the problems they generate. In this huge challenge, it is also key that we extend and reinforce cooperation with private companies, scientific bodies, and other relevant stakeholders, as well as the general public.
Air pollution is sometimes called "the invisible killer". How can this threat be made more visible to citizens and in our communities, to stimulate stronger actions?
Communication, awareness raising and public involvement are the three key words to reach higher consciousness and engagement to combat air pollution. Citizens have a bigger role in curbing air pollution than they are usually aware of. More than the faraway chimney of a factory, today, it is our choices on mobility, heating, food and general consumption that cause air pollution. We must further use existing IT solutions, mobile-phone applications and other appropriate tools to inform the public and to make this "invisible killer" more visible. Air-quality information should be easier to access and to understand and it should also include health aspects. A good example is the European Air Quality Index as it provides comprehensive information on air quality in Europe, but is relatively unknown and needs to be more widely publicised. To raise citizens' awareness of air pollution, we should also mention science applications – like measurement campaigns in schools or global sensor networks such as Sensor Community. The latter cannot replace high-quality data monitoring official systems, but they can be an effective complement to disseminate information on air-pollution trends while actively involving the public and raising people's awareness.
What kind of funds are currently available to local and regional authorities to improve air quality? What improvements in the EU funding system would you propose?
Funding is essential, as the success in implementing air-quality programmes is significantly determined by the amount of available financial resources. We must acknowledge that there is a lack of EU funding instruments specifically targeting air quality measures, be that for drafting and implementing air-quality plans or for completing real-time air-quality monitoring. Access to funds is also quite difficult, so we must substantially simplify procedures to ensure that calls for funding are successful and ultimately translate into real projects on the ground that help us to reduce air pollution.
In the opinion on air quality we recently adopted at the European Committee of the Regions, we urge the Commission to increase and simplify access to EU funds. It is also crucial to ensure coherence between projects funded by the EU and policies of national, regional and local authorities, in order to act in a coordinated way as to maximise impact. In that sense, we call on Member States and the European Commission to promote and reinforce cooperation with local and regional authorities across the EU to develop coordinated strategies, policies and programmes to improve air quality.
What advice would you give to local or regional authorities aiming at improving air quality? Are there any initiatives or networks you would suggest them to join?
It is a fact that local and regional authorities are not alone when fighting air pollution. Several important initiatives and networks are available to support them in improving air quality. I would mention the Urban Agenda Partnership on Air Quality, the Expert Panel on Clean Air in Cities under the UNECE Air Convention, the EU Clean Air Forum, the Covenant of Mayors, but also the new European Commission Green City Accord and the Technical Platform for Cooperation on the Environment, launched in 2012 by the CoR and the European Commission to foster the dialogue on local and regional challenges in the application of EU environment law. All of these initiatives provide significant added value in clean-air policy, and I would strongly encourage local and regional authorities to be more involved in them.
It is undoubtable that there is a growing social movement asking for stronger climate action. How does air policy interact with climate policy and other sectorial areas?
Indeed, there is a very close connection between air and climate policies. Often, both policies are reciprocally beneficial, for instance, when considering energy-saving measures or the production of energy from renewable sources. However, we must remain vigilant as, in some cases, climate-related choices, such as biomass combustion, can have a negative impact on air quality. Overall, we need better cross-sectoral cooperation and coherence of relevant policy areas. Measures should address all sources of air pollution in an integrated way: from transport (both road and non-road), to energy (including domestic heating), agricultural sectors and industry while taking into account other relevant areas such as climate change and health. Synergies should be harnessed and counterproductive provisions avoided. For that reason, all relevant measures of the European Green Deal should be mobilised to help achieve the current air-quality objectives: not just the Zero Pollution Action Plan but also the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Circular Economy Action Plan, Sustainable and Smart Mobility and the European Climate Law.
The opinion on air quality by rapporteur János Ádám Karácsony (HU/EPP) was adopted at the CoR plenary session on 2 July 2020. Read our press release here.
Read here the CoR Report on Air quality in the framework of the Regional Hubs project.
Last October 2020, the CoR published its first Annual Regional and Local Barometer on the impact of the COVID-19. You can read the main findings here and the full report here including insights on environmental impact of the pandemic in Chapter V (p.87-96).
The consultation on the EU Action Plan Towards a Zero Pollution Ambition for air, water and soil is open from 11 November 2020 to 10 February 2021. You can contribute here.
Green Deal Going Local (GDGL) is a new initiative of the European Committee of the Regions that aims at placing cities and regions at the core of the European Green Deal and ensuring that both the EU's sustainable growth strategy and the COVID-19 recovery plans translate into direct funding for cities and regions and tangible projects for every territory. Green Deal Going Local was launched on 15 June 2020 with the creation of a specific Working Group composed of 13 members. Read the press release here.
Discover 200 Green Deal best practices in our online map.
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