European cities are putting measures in place to reduce toxic emissions from vehicles in a bid to improve air quality and save lives.
Scores of European city-dwellers’ have died prematurely as a result of poor air quality, studies show. The European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that some 307,000 people in Europe died prematurely from exposure to fine particulate matter in 2019 alone.
The EEA has branded air pollution “the biggest environmental health risk in Europe”. The list of diseases inflamed by chronic exposure to air pollution includes respiratory issues, lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
Most deaths from poor air quality are centered in cities, where residents tend to live alongside dense traffic.
The urban dimension of these health problems puts local governments on the front lines. While air quality standards are agreed in Brussels and national parliaments, it is generally up to public authorities to enact them.
Ensuring that citizens breathe clean air is vital to maintaining cities as attractive places to live, according to Thomas Lymes, a policy advisor with the city network EUROCITIES.
Cutting air pollution is “a matter of social justice for public authorities because people that are most affected by air pollution are households with low income that essentially live next to big urban roads and major transport corridors,” he told EURACTIV.
To tackle harmful pollutants from cars, cities across the continent have enacted different schemes, with the removal of vehicles from streets a common denominator.
In practice, this often means replacing car use with alternative means of transport like cycling, and promoting zero-emission vehicles, like electric cars and buses.
The French capital has made significant investments in expanding cycling infrastructure, with the aim to become one of the most cycling friendly cities in the world. Mayor Anne Hidalgo wants Paris to be “100% cyclable” by 2026.
To achieve this, Paris will install 180 kilometres of segregated bike lanes, Bloomberg reported. Already, the reallocation of space away from cars to cyclists has led to a major uptick in the number of daily bike journeys.
In Brussels, a capital well known for its traffic-choked boulevards, the city is offering residents €900 to give up their car. The money can be spent on buying a bicycle, purchasing a public transport pass, or joining a car-sharing service.
London has taken the controversial step of taxing those who drive polluting vehicles to enter parts of the city. Vehicles that don’t meet emission standards must pay £12.50 per day to enter the British capital’s ultra-low emission zones (ULEZ). In practice, only the newest diesel-powered vehicles qualify.
Under plans put forward by Mayor Sadiq Khan, ULEZ will be extended across London by the end of 2023, a move that will encourage the purchase of low-emission vehicles and greater levels of walking and cycling.
However, even with the uptick in clean vehicles, emissions will not be completely eradicated.
Non-exhaust particulate matter
Non-exhaust particulate matter from brakes and tyres are less well-known than tailpipe particles but are similarly toxic, according to Matteo Barisione, a policy manager with the European Public Health Alliance.
One of the most alarming developments is the trend towards larger vehicles, said Barisione.
“Vehicle weight and non-exhaust emissions are correlated,” he said. “Decreasing the size and the mass of vehicles reduces harmful pollutant emissions as well as their CO2 emissions, life cycle ecological footprint, and road accident risks.”
While legislation regulating these emissions is needed, the best way to tackle the problem is simply to drive less, Barisione says.
Euro 7 rules
Euro 7, an upcoming regulation setting EU vehicle pollution standards, will be expanded to include brake particles for the first time.
“ACEA does not oppose a regulation addressing brake wear particle emissions. However, a stable and representative test is a prerequisite for determining the real level of brake wear emissions, and subsequently for deciding on any appropriate limit levels,” an ACEA spokesperson told EURACTIV.
Car manufacturers have also expressed concerns that mandated changes to brake standards may have an impact on their effectiveness.
However, Tallano, a French start-up that produces filters to remove brake dust from vehicles, argues that solutions can be applied that do not impact the brakes.
“Technology exists to reduce brake dust without reducing the effectiveness of brakes,” said Christophe Rocca-Serra, the founder of Tallano. “Products like ours, which capture particles at source by suction, pose no risk to the effectiveness of brakes,” he told EURACTIV.
The clean mobility NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) is strongly in favour of a rapid switch to electric vehicles, stressing that EVs will drastically reduce air pollution.
Anna Krajinska, emission engineer with Transport & Environment points out that when all vehicle related particle sources are taken into account EVs still produce less particle pollution than internal combustion engine vehicles.
T&E are urging the European Commission to set the strictest possible standards in the upcoming Euro 7 regulation.
“For the sake of people’s health it is critical that all sources of particulate pollution from all vehicles are tackled as soon as possible,” Krajinska told EURACTIV.