Improving the air that we breathe

It has become a high priority in politics and economics, a societal topic that deserves further engagement and adequate responses.


“Every breath you take, matters,” said Beijing citizens in the wake of the ‘Blue Skies Diplomacy’ undertaken by the Chinese Government ahead of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit that they hosted in 2015. You can “see” pollution in Delhi or Beijing. And, sometimes, you also “see” it in Madrid or Paris but not seeing pollution doesn’t mean that you are inhaling clean air. According to Teresa Ribera, it’s time to change social patterns to restore good quality air.


In these times of great environmental change, air quality is recognised as a key issue. It connects people’s everyday lives with environmental policies. There are convincing facts behind this need for change. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Environment Agency, 400,000 people died prematurely in 2014 in the EU of 28 Member States due to exposure to bad quality air. In addition, it harms ecosystems, soil and water systems, impacting on biodiversity, agriculture and, ultimately, on socio-economic patterns.

Policy action in this field has a long track record. For decades, measures have been adopted to improve air quality. But technical “improvement” is not enough any more. It has become a high priority in politics and economics, a societal topic that deserves further engagement and adequate responses. 82-85% of Europe’s total urban population is exposed to concentrations of PM2.5 (Particulate matter) and above, according to WHO and EU references, and this percentage rises to 95-98% when dealing with ozone (O3).

Mayors in a large number of cities have understood that they need to lead the change.

The sources of pollution are multiple and diverse. Beyond industrial emissions, heating in homes and the use of fertilisers and dirty fuel for transport are a major public concern. Accordingly, there are several interesting moves in this sense. Air quality speaks to people’s hearts and people’s minds. The dominance of cars or other mobility options are a simple way to identify action on air quality and public goods since the source of the problem is also competing for the public space. Let’s take the example of Paris, where the public debate on the use of the ‘berges’, the banks along the river Seine riversides, has been heating up. 1,419 hectares out of the total of 2,800 hectares dedicated to streets and squares are dedicated to the use of cars (200 hectares for parking), preventing other potential uses for citizens.

Mobility and clean air are major issues driving a relevant change in social patterns. Technology is no longer the single point of reference for change. For a long time, lack of options or lack of demand inhibited policy makers but this is not the case any more. Even more so nowadays, we are witnessing people defending their rights to enjoy a healthy environment in court, fighting against the car industry or the lack of ambition of local and national authorities. Mayors in a large number of cities have understood that they need to lead the change. Citizens’ empowerment and local action are powerful tools but they are not enough on their own. European governments and EU institutions have the opportunity and the obligation to deal with this issue under the energy and climate package. This is a framework for mobility and transportation that impacts on people’s health and on industry as well as on the confidence in the EU’s capacity to build an appealing common future for its citizens.

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