According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is the biggest environmental risk to health and a public health emergency, causing more than 300,000 premature deaths a year in the European Union alone.
Cities are at the forefront of the clean air struggle as many are pollution hotspots,
with EU air quality limits being breached in more than 100 of them across the continent. The number of citizens at risk is also particularly high in urban areas, with cities accounting for only 4 per cent of the EU’s land area but 75 per cent of its population. Given almost a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions from
transport come from cities, it is imperative that urgent action is taken in cities.
Road transport continues to be one of the main sources of toxic air pollution, especially nitrogen oxides. Research by health experts showed that transport-related air pollution cost the average European city resident 1,276 euros per year, with lower-income citizens and regions being disproportionately affected.
In Central and Eastern Europe, the burning of solid fuels for domestic heating and industry results in high concentrations of both fine and coarse particulate matter, which causes cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and other diseases that lead to premature deaths. Therefore, we need to treat air quality as a priority issue.
Low-emission zones (LEZs) that regulate access to urban areas based on the emissions of vehicles are one of the primary clean air measures in European cities. They have proven effective in curbing toxic air pollution and can also reduce road traffic overall and boost the local economy.
LEZs were first introduced two decades ago and they saw a particularly strong uptake after the adoption of the EU’s air quality directive in 2008. A new report published by the Clean Cities Campaign found that a sustained momentum and a new wave of low-emission zones are underway as clean air zones across Europe have risen by 40 per cent since 2019.
The report found that between 2019 and 2022, the total number of LEZs has increased by 40 per cent, now present in 320 cities across Europe. By 2025, the researchers expect that this number will grow by almost 60 per cent to a total of 507 LEZs. This is largely due to new national laws coming into force in France, Spain and Poland that mandate or support the adoption of such schemes.
The low emission zones will be expanded or tightened, meaning progressively
stricter restrictions on polluting vehicles, including in major cities such as London, Paris, Brussels and Berlin.
Italy tops Europe’s clean air table, with 172 declared clean air zones, followed by Germany, the UK, the Netherlands and France. So far, few LEZs have been set up in central and eastern Europe, but Poland and Bulgaria are expected to unveil new zones in the months ahead.
In Poland, the new Act on Electromobility and Alternative Fuels is giving competence to cities to set up low-emission zones. Krakow and Warsaw will launch a low-emission respectively by the end of 2022 and in 2023 and several other cities have expressed interest in setting up LEZs, such as Lodz, Wroclaw, Zabrze, Gliwice, Rzeszow, Bydgoszc and Gdansk among others. The Bulgarian capital of Sofia also has plans to adopt a LEZ, which is supposed to launch in November 2022 pending the result of ongoing public consultation and an upcoming City Council vote.
However, the report warns that LEZs alone will not be enough to fulfil the EU’s zero pollution ambition nor will they allow cities to attain their climate objectives. Only zero-emission transport will allow them to attain this goal and therefore, zero-emission zones (ZEZs) are needed.
The first wave of ZEZs is already underway, with three (partial) zero-emission
zones currently in force in European cities. Current confirmed, published plans foresee the creation of a total of 35 ZEZs by 2030, nine of which will apply to
Given the urgency of the climate crisis and the public health emergency, it is very likely that a much larger number of such zones will soon be prepared in cities across Europe, the report underlines.