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Air Pollution – the Importance of Information for Implementing Policies

Submitted by on 15 Apr 2014 – 15:35

By Hans Bruyninckx, Director, European Environment Agency

Hans Bruyninckx

Air-related legislation in the EU aims to protect human health and the environment from pollution. But this legislation is not always fully implemented, or when it is implemented it may not always deliver the desired benefits.

The reasons behind such ‘implementation gaps’ were the subject of the Air Implementation Pilot project, an EEA study published last year which looked into the implementation of air quality legislation at a local level. 

Air pollution remains an important issue in Europe. More than nine out of 10 city-dwellers in Europe are exposed to air pollutants above World Health Organization guidelines, according to our most recent Air Quality report. Several air quality standards are still regularly exceeded in Europe, even though some of these limits were established more than a decade ago. The most problematic pollutants are particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NO2) and ozone (O3), which affect people’s life expectancy and quality of life.

Moreover, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests air pollution is more harmful than previously thought. This was reinforced by a statement in October from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which classified air pollution as carcinogenic. So the need to reduce the implementation gap is clear.

Better data informing better implementation

What could help close implementation gaps? This is the question we asked in 2012, when we initiated the Air Implementation Pilot project with the European Commission and 12 participating cities: Antwerp (Belgium), Berlin (Germany), Dublin (Ireland), Madrid (Spain), Malmö (Sweden), Milan (Italy), Paris (France), Ploiesti (Romania), Plovdiv (Bulgaria), Prague (Czech Republic), Vienna (Austria), and Vilnius (Lithuania).

Our findings demonstrate that information is at the centre of addressing the air pollution problem. The project looked at several areas of work, from keeping data on local emission sources and quantities (known as ‘emission inventories’), to administrative measures to manage air pollution, to the methods authorities use to inform the public. All stages depend on high quality air pollution data which can inform the decision-making by local authorities and policy-makers.

For instance, when compiling emission inventories some cities struggled with incomplete data. This has a knock-on effect on air quality modelling, which uses this data to build a better understanding of the impacts and effects of pollution. In some cases, modelling was also hampered by issues with other input data, for example meteorological data or city topography.

Ideally, cities and regions can learn from the successes of others in addressing air pollution, which would be easier if data was comparable. The study found that almost all cities participating in the study kept emissions inventories, but compiled them using different methodologies. Resolving this requires further exchange of experiences, better input data and more training and guidance, according to the experts we consulted.

Better information is not just useful for taking action in the future, but also for understanding the impact of actions already taken. For example, some city representatives said they were uncertain about how to evaluate the effectiveness of measures, and their costs and benefits – a situation which could be improved with better tools and guidance.

Of course, local administrations are not the only actors when it comes to air quality – the public can also make choices which have an effect on air quality and their exposure to pollutants. Here too, accessible, high quality information is crucial. The study found that most cities provide information on air quality to the public as required by legislation, mostly via dedicated air quality websites. However, these cities generally made little use of mass media, social media and new technologies such as smartphone applications, so there is a potential to increase engagement.

Taken as a whole, the results of this study underline the importance of having access to accurate information in addressing a dynamic, local issue like air pollution. Improving these processes may therefore improve air quality, ultimately leading to longer, healthier lives for many Europeans.

Moreover, air is not the only environmental issue which depends on high quality information – consider water quality, biodiversity or land use. Therefore the findings of this study may also be useful in addressing other areas of environmental governance.

Changing policies

The results of the EEA Air Pilot Implementation study fed into the European Commission’s review of air policy, which concluded late last year. The resulting European Clean Air Policy Package proposed by the Commission aims to ensure that countries comply with existing legislation by 2020. For the years beyond 2020, it proposes tighter limits to existing laws and new legislation. One focus of the package is improving air quality in cities and supporting research and innovation through the EU’s LIFE+ programme.

The European Commission estimates that the policy package will avoid 58,000 premature deaths and prevent nitrogen pollution in an area half the size of Romania, including a large swathe of protected areas. For these ambitious aims to become a reality, Europe will need to implement both current and new laws – and accurate information will continue to play a big part in this.