Air pollution: New top ceilings from the European Parliament and the contribution of Transport

By Dr. Andreas Hadjichambis,
Scientific Director of the Cyprus Center for Environmental Research and Education (CYCERE) and Chair of the European Network for Environmental Citizenship (ENEC)

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is the most important environmental health risk in the European Union (EU). The need to limit air pollutant emissions is considered imperative since, according to EU sources, air pollution causes more than 400,000 premature deaths within the Union each year. Therefore, it is obvious that non-compliance with the current permissible emission limits of gaseous pollutants prevents a better quality of life for European citizens. Also, in the EU the economic cost of air pollution in terms of health effects amounts to hundreds of billions of euros. Air particles, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and tropospheric ozone are the air pollutants responsible for most of these premature deaths, causing more than 1,000 on average every day in the EU, more than tenfold of traffic accident victims.

In April 2024, the European Parliament voted for new ceilings that replace the current rules of annual national emission ceilings of the corresponding European Directive 2008/50/EC. The revised framework of rules aims to reduce air pollution in the EU for a healthy environment, in line with the EU's vision of zero pollution by 2050. The new limits were deemed necessary so that air pollution is no longer harmful to health, natural ecosystems and biodiversity. Pollution will be reduced in half across the EU as updated rules improve air quality monitoring and protect vulnerable groups more effectively. The new rules set stricter limits and target values for 2030 for pollutants with serious health effects, including air particles (PM2.5, PM10), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2).

The limits were set as follows:
Member States can request a postponement of the 2030 deadline by a maximum of ten years if certain conditions are met. However, if the new national rules are broken, those affected by air pollution will be able to take legal action and citizens can receive compensation if there are health effects. More urban air quality sampling points will also be created and the currently fragmented air quality indicators across the EU will be made comparable, clear and publicly available.

Research has shown that in Cyprus, approximately 400 premature deaths and 8,000 years of life lost each year are due to air pollution from air particles. That is, more than one person dies every day due to air pollution and air particles in our country. Dramatic consequences for the Economy, Society and Public Health. According to the EU, of the increased levels of air particles in the atmosphere (from anthropogenic causes), 33% is due to transport, 19% to industry and 20% to power generation.

We immediately need Fixed Track Public Transport (Trams within cities, Trains or Metro between cities) like all European countries but also a comprehensive plan to deal with air pollution. Public Transport are a right for every citizen and an obligation of a social state, just like education and health. Considering that the fuel for private vehicles is constantly increasing, there is an urgent need to create Public Transport fixed tracks such as trams and trains that will ensure a more economical and sustainable movement of citizens. The transport landscape in Cyprus needs to change radically with the introduction of fixed track MMM and Sustainable Urban and Interurban Mobility considering that some means promoted (e.g. buses) do not enjoy the trust of our fellow citizens.

The solution by promoting electric cars or hybrids is in the right direction because it reduces air pollution but does not reduce traffic congestion and inconvenience, tire pollution, noise pollution, stress and lost hours on the roads. Essential to this transition is greater support from EU and national resources for investment in urban and inter-urban transport based on newly available indicators of sustainable urban mobility, with increased funding and clear rules applicable to urban areas and with enhanced involvement of cities and citizens in decision-making. Creating a multimodal, convenient and reliable mobility system will reduce air pollution but also have a number of other beneficial effects on health, society, the economy, the environment and biodiversity.

The tram and railway in Luxembourg are all free for all citizens. A country of only 640,000 inhabitants has an extensive network with trams and rail providing frequent routes every 5-10 minutes. This is how the country ensured its sustainable transport, without traffic jams, hourly delays, daily stress and irritation of citizens, loss of working hours, pollutants worth millions, significant economic costs to citizens and pollution and premature deaths.

This might be the solution for Cyprus as well, with a population and area much larger than Luxembourg. Cyprus, a country with a population of almost 1 million and with 3 million tourists can and should have trams, trains and subways. As long as we invest in road construction and private cars, we will not be able to solve the traffic problem. Especially in the two largest cities of our country in Limassol and Nicosia. Also, the connection of cities, airports and ports by rail or metro will change the landscape of transport, the landscape of work and commuting in the country when, for example, the journey from Nicosia to Limassol and vice versa will be under 20 minutes and will necessarily lead to the increased use of buses or bicycles within our cities. The goal is zero pollution by 2050 both in the EU and in Cyprus. That is why it is particularly important for Cyprus to draw up today a road map and a national strategy for changing the transport landscape until 2050. So, 2050 should be the milestone year for the operation of trams, trains and metros in Cyprus. Let's not forget that more than 40% of nitrogen oxide emissions come from road transport and around 40% of primary PM2.5 comes from the transport sector.

The EU should support these goals with the corresponding policies and the necessary financial tools, considering that Cyprus, as an island, cannot benefit from the European TEN-T regulation nor from the new Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) – the Transport Programme. There is an urgent need to promote and finance traffic reduction solutions as a means to safer, more resilient, climate neutral and sustainable green cities.

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