There are no safe levels of air pollution, and cities, with their high population density and intense mobility patterns, are facing particular challenges in reducing the levels of harmful emissions. European emission standards are one of the tools that cities have at their disposal to improve air quality, argues Cristina Pricop, Policy Officer at EPHA.
Do European cities have an issue with polluting car use? “There is no city without air quality problems” was one of the key conclusions of a recent “Clean cities, healthy citizens: cutting vehicle emissions” webinar. Indeed, personal cars have become a very unhealthy fact of life for urban residents. In 2018, city dwellers across Europe experienced an average welfare loss equivalent to over €1,250 per capita per year due to the direct and indirect health effects of poor air quality linked to road transport. It is in cities that cars are driven and are polluting the most. It is thus in cities’ interest and their responsibility to address this issue.
European legislation on vehicle standards can help – or hinder – city challenges
Stricter, new Euro 7 emission standards can lead to a faster decrease of emissions over time via the renewal of the car fleet – as new vehicles are subject to stricter regulations, saving social costs and ultimately lives while discharging overburdened healthcare systems at the same time. Yet cities can be even more ambitious, incentivize an accelerated pace of change and improve the health of their inhabitants via measures such as Low Emission Zones (LEZs). These are areas where access is restricted for vehicles with a certain emission standard. LEZs are usually based on Euro standards and can become progressively stricter over time.
Stricter emission standards will also help increase the competitiveness of electric vehicles compared to more polluting options. Electric cars are already the best financial option for second and third owners. From 2025, this may also be the case for first owners – but it all hinges on the timely introduction of new ambitious emission standards.
In recent months we have seen an abundance of pledges from the car industry to completely electrify their fleets in the upcoming years. It is clear then that the technical capabilities are or will soon be there. In this context, Euro 7 needs to be the final update that applies to conventional vehicles. The health and climate imperatives are clear: we must decisively move to zero-and low emission alternatives!
Therefore, whenever cars are needed, they must be as sustainable as possible. However, while electric vehicles may be the future for the industry, they are not the future of mobility. They are a necessary step in the right direction but cannot deliver the change we need by themselves.
As active mobility has additional health benefits due to increased physical activity, while calling for stricter emissions standards, it is equally important to stress that a modal shift is also needed for human and planetary health. Apart from active mobility, public transport is also an important element in mitigating the effects of socio-economic inequalities. Moreover, effective multimodality, the seamless integration of different modes of transportation, is essential for creating a mobility environment that denormalises personal car use in urban areas.
Cities should be involved and engaged in shaping the post Euro 6 world in the debates which are currently underway. Local authorities not only face much of the burden of implementing measures to reduce air pollution, but they are also presented with a significant opportunity to help improve the quality of life of city dwellers. Health professionals can be trusted partners in that process, delivering evidence on the health costs of pollution and speaking out about the need for a modal shift to accelerate the pathway towards pollution-free city transport.