España debe actuar más rápido y con más determinación para proteger a su población de la mala calidad del aire

Spain Must Act More Quickly and Decisively to Protect its Citizens From Ambient Air Pollution

22.12.2022
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Photo: Leyre / Unsplash - Barcelona

The recent ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) against Spain for its failure to comply with the European Directive on ambient air quality has underscored the urgent need for drastic measures to deal with this problem. Clean air is neither a passing fad nor a purely cosmetic issue: it is a problem that must be addressed to prevent disease and premature deaths. Poor air quality is estimated to be responsible for around 300,000 preventable deaths every year in the European Union (EU) in addition to millions of new cases of asthma and bronchitis in children and cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, COPD, pneumonia and cancer in adults .

All Spanish cities—but particularly Madrid and Barcelona—are hotspots of air pollution. While local and national government bodies have implemented some preventive measures, with greater or lesser determination, it would appear that the pace of action has not been fast enough, partly as a result of opposition wholly unsupported by the scientific evidence.

If Spain is currently being penalised for its failure to comply with the 40 µg/m3 annual mean limit value for NO2, how is it going to reduce pollution by 50% or, even better, to achieve the 10 µg/m3 limit value recommended by the WHO on the basis of the evidence showing that this lower level is much safer for health?

This condemnation of Spain is even more alarming because the ruling refers to the country’s failure to comply with air pollution limit values that are already out-of-date. In 2021, following an extensive review of the scientific literature on the topic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) decided to significantly reduce their recommended limit values for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution in ambient air, from 40 to 10 µg/m3. In October 2022, we learned that the European Commission proposed to lower the NO2 limit values allowed under its air quality directive from 40 to 20 µg/m3.

 

 

If Spain is currently being penalised for its failure to comply with the earlier 40 µg/m3 annual mean limit value for NO2, how is it going to reduce pollution by 50% or, even better, to achieve the 10 µg/m3 limit value recommended by the WHO on the basis of the evidence showing that this lower level is much safer for health?

We know that there is no magic wand and that no single intervention can reduce air pollution. The only way forward is to implement a package of policy measures and, in parallel, to increase public awareness of the problem. One imperative is to reduce the number of private motorised vehicles in our cities and to make them cleaner. At the same time we must expand and reinforce public transport and favour the use of active modes of mobility in urban and metropolitan areas. The aim should be to make trip times on public transport shorter than those that can be achieved using private vehicles.

The only way forward is to implement a package of policy measures and, in parallel, to increase public awareness of the problem. One imperative is to reduce the number of private motorised vehicles in our cities and to make them cleaner

The roadmap necessarily involves replacing asphalt with green spaces and prioritising interventions aimed at greening cities and eliminating polluting traffic. We must turn our urban highways into streets and implement and enforce a 30 km/h speed limit throughout urban areas. Low-emission zones have also proven useful in this context: and they should be extended and restricted to vehicles causing even less pollution than those currently allowed. Cycle lane networks must be expanded, even outside municipal boundaries. And traffic must be prohibited within a radius of at least 200 metres around schools.

 

 

The electric car is not a panacea. The vehicles are expensive, their introduction is slow, and they do nothing to remedy our great mistake of ceding the majority of our public urban space to motorised traffic to the detriment of people. Electric vehicles should, however, be used for public transport, including taxis. Noisy and polluting motorcycles should also be banned from cities and replaced by electric motorbikes. The same applies to delivery fleets, which should be electrified even as we work to eradicate door-to-door delivery and build a system based on collection points. 

By doing all of this, we will not only prevent deaths and cases of disease, but also take steps to counter the great threat posed by climate change. Of course, the road forward will not be easy. It will require additional efforts from all of us, but these changes are essential if we are to protect public health and ensure a healthy urban environment for both ourselves and future generations.