European Commission, Environment DG

Flexible approaches to managing air pollution

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Managing air quality has become an increasingly complex partnership between regional, national and local bodies in Europe. A recent study explores the development and achievements of urban air quality management over recent decades, from controlling emissions at source to new, flexible approaches, based on managing risks associated with impacts on health and the environment. The future of air quality management is also discussed.

Researchers used the UK as a case study to illustrate the principles and practice involved in air quality management. All Member States work within the Air Quality Framework Directive2 and the study highlighted some of the challenges EU nations face in managing air quality. A major area of concern is urban air quality3, which is particularly affected by significant increases in road transport and industrial development.

In the UK, the government implemented the Local Air Quality Management (LAQM) framework through the Environment Act in 19954. The LAQM integrated technology-based controls with a risk management approach based on human exposure to pollutants, and complies with the Air Quality Framework Directive. The Air Quality Strategy (AQS) published in 1997 (amended in 2007) also considers ecosystem protection from the pollutants SO2 and NOx, as well as protection of human health.

Both the Environment Act and the AQS, provide the framework for the government and local authorities to jointly manage air quality. Local authorities are responsible for assessing local levels of pollution and identifying areas of poor air quality in need of remedial action. While identifying these areas has been a successful process, implementing action plans to remedy air pollution has been slow. For its part, the government offers guidance and support to local authorities, for example, by developing national monitoring networks.

Further developments in LAQM include reducing exposure to fine particles (PM2.5) in areas where significant improvements to public health can be achieved. This initiative should particularly benefit more deprived communities, who often live in highly polluted areas of cities. Better communication within local authorities and between stakeholders is another priority and should result in greater efficiency in implementing action plans to clean up air. Involvement in the consultation process is expected to result in greater social acceptance of decisions made under the LAQM system.

Critical to the further development of AQM policy across Europe, will be to ensure effective integration between air pollution and climate change strategies. It is important to develop win-win policies where a balance is achieved between improvements in air quality and the management of carbon emissions.

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