NewsLocalLow-carbon public transport in Cyprus a must, says EU Environment Commissioner

Low-carbon public transport in Cyprus a must, says EU Environment Commissioner

EU Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevičius talks to Phileleftheros about air pollution and the need for Europe – including Cyprus – to target dirty air and water pollution.

Referring specifically to Cyprus, he said the country does not exceed set limits by relevant European directives which means that – in general – the air the Mediterranean islanders breathe is clean enough.

However, set targets for ozone levels have been exceeded with the biggest problem in Cyprus today being the absence of public as well as green transport.

And combined with the fact that a large number of cars on Cypriot roads are old, the problem is exacerbated, he added.

That’s why he proposed low-carbon public transport and other non-fossil-based means of transport. As well as the support of infrastructure investments, such as light rail or tramlines and cycling-friendly infrastructure.

Here is the full interview by Xenia Tourki:

What is the clean air policy package? And why is it important for the EU? What kind of positive progress in order to reduce air pollution do you envision for the future?

The proposed revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directives will set interim 2030 EU air quality standards, while putting the EU on a trajectory to achieve zero pollution for air at the latest by 2050. Our proposals are based on a thorough impact assessment. The objectives are in line with the progress we envision for the future. To this end, we propose a regular review of the air quality standards to reassess them taking into account latest scientific evidence as well as societal and technological developments. The annual limit value for the main pollutant – fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – is proposed to be cut by more than half.

Together with other EU policies, the proposed directive will reduce the number of premature deaths attributable to the main air pollutant – fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – by more than 75% in ten years. More 300,000 Europeans every year dies prematurely due to air pollution, so we talk here about huge number of saved lives. Moreover, It will also reduce the amount and gravity of diseases that are caused or made worse by air pollution, such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. This will particularly benefit the most sensitive and vulnerable populations.

The package will also reduce damage to the environment caused by air pollution. The benefits to economy and society outweigh the costs by at least a factor of 7. Air pollution costs the EU economy tens of billions per year due to health costs, damage to buildings, ecosystems, crop yields and forests. The new rules are expected to reduce these costs, while industry output and crop production are expected to increase.

What will be the key elements of the proposal and how will they fit together?

 The proposed revision will ensure the EU aligns more closely with WHO recommendations based on scientific evidence on health impacts of dirty air. The revision will ensure that people suffering health damages from air pollution have the right to be compensated in the case of a violation of EU air quality rules. Improved rules on air quality monitoring and modelling will make it possible to check compliance with standards more closely, also at lower concentrations levels now known to be harmful too, and support more efficient and effective action to prevent and address breaches of standards. The proposed legislation will better support local authorities in achieving cleaner air. In addition to addressing exceedances of air quality standards, the proposal requires preventive air quality plans when there is a risk of exceeding a limit value in 2030. It will also ensure that the public is better informed about air quality.

What are the most dangerous kinds of pollution and their health impacts affecting Europeans and what are their health impacts?

One in eight premature deaths EU-wide are attributed to a poor quality environment.

Air pollution causes 300,000 premature deaths per year in the EU.  It affects everyone – but most of all children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions as they are most sensitive to the health impacts of air pollution.

People with a lower socio-economic status have an increased risk of exposure to air pollution. Often poorer people are more likely to live next to busy roads or industrial areas and so face higher levels of exposure to air pollution.

In addition to that, 1 in 5 people in the EU live in areas with harmful noise levels.

Water pollution can have an impact on health via contaminated drinking water extracted from groundwater or surface water. Member States report that the quality of the drinking water supplied to European citizens is high. Moreover, the new Drinking Water Directive needs to be transposed into national legislation by 12 January 2023. With the aim of taking better account of health risks, more substances will be monitored. Member States will apply a risk-based approach to monitoring in order to allow a focus of the resources to the highest risk areas; and measures are planned to harmonise the standards for materials that come into contact with drinking water.

Polluted bathing water constitutes another pathway from water pollution to health impacts. The quality of coastal and inland bathing water across Europe is generally good due to the successful implementation of Bathing Water Directive. The bathing water sites are reviewed and rated each year. Those locations rated as having poor water quality need most attention to decrease the risk of human illness.

Do we breathe clean air in Europe? Which countries or regions have the biggest problem?

EU legislation has greatly improved the quality of the air we breathe in Europe. Since 2008, EU clean air policy reduced the share of air quality zones with particulate matter (PM) exceedances by 50%. Today, 70% fewer early deaths are attributable to air pollution, compared to the 1990s. However, it is not enough.

Also its obvious that the situation in Member States varies. Also it varies according to which pollutants we look at.

Concerning fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the pollutant with the highest well documented health impacts, we see the highest concentrations in northern Italy and some eastern European countries. High levels of fine (PM2.5) and coarse particulate matter (PM10) in central and eastern Europe are primarily due to the use of solid fuels as well as an older vehicle fleet. In northern Italy, the high concentrations are due to the combination of a high density of man-made emissions and meteorological and geographical conditions.

The highest concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) occur across Europe in bigger cities with a high traffic volume.

In 2020 the highest concentrations of ozone (O3) were found in central parts of Europe, some Mediterranean countries and Portugal. Weather conditions can have a particularly high impact on ozone concentrations.

Thanks to the commission’s proposal for new air quality rules tabled on 25 October we are confident that the situation will be much better in 2030.

Can you tell us specifically about air pollution in Cyprus? Do you have any recommendations for Cyprus? What would be the best way to decrease air pollution? What can a country like Cyprus do which it was a high use of cars and minimal use of public transport?

 Cyprus is currently not exceeding any limit values set by the EU Ambient Air Quality Directives. However, Cyprus is reporting exceedances of the ozone target value.

Despite the reduction in emissions since 1990, Cyprus needs to make additional efforts to meet its emission reduction commitments set by the National Emissions Ceilings Directive for the years from 2020 to 2029 and from 2030 onwards.

Measures to do so could tackle passenger transport as only a minority of passengers use buses and no railways or trams are available. Cyprus is highly dependent on private cars and has one of the highest car ownership rates in the world with more than 600 cars per 1 000 inhabitants and a very low use of green transport.

Therefore, investments to promote multimodal urban mobility, in the framework of sustainable urban mobility strategies, in particular in Nicosia, should aim towards sustainable and accessible modes of transport. This includes low-carbon public transport and other non-fossil-based means of transport as well as the support of infrastructure investments, such as light rail or tramlines, in particular in Nicosia, and cycling friendly infrastructure.

Due to energy costs, it is predicted that Europeans will use their fireplaces much more this year. Do you believe that there will be a major impact on air quality? Can the EU do something about it?

Given the high energy prices we are seeing that many consumers will see what they can do to find alternatives forms of energy such as coal or wood in the coming months – notably for heating. Indeed, it can have a short-term impact on air quality.

But what is most important is that polluting alternatives would be used only for a limited period and as a last resort. We should not forget that air pollution affects us all, especially vulnerable people, including those with lower incomes and with medical conditions. So clearly we need to address both the energy crisis and air pollution.

In the short term, we want to get energy prices back in check, ensure sufficient gas storage before this winter, and enable emergency measures where they are needed. In the medium and long term we have to address both energy crisis and air pollution. The good news is that is possible.

For example, while it will be difficult to better insulate all homes for this winter, this is clearly a goal we need to pursue further. In the medium-term, we believe that many of these concerns will be addressed by the emphasis that the Commission is putting on renovation (e.g. home insulation, triple glazed windows, heat pumps) – with member states encouraged to use this option in their Recovery and Resilience plans to help the economic recovery after the pandemic.

Moreover, we want to accelerate the roll-out of hydrogen, and also strengthen our action on renewables and decarbonisation.

And this is where stricter air quality standards for 2030 come in. Just think about where the majority of our air pollution comes from: burning fossil and solid fuels. So better insulating our buildings, and implementing clean renewables will reduce our energy bills, secure our energy supply, and reduce air pollution.

Is independence from Russian energy possible? And what does this mean for the implementation of the EU Green Deal?

 Absolutely possible. While the EU imported 45% of its gas from Russia last year, the figure for September already dropped to just 9%. And it is likely to drop further before the end of the year.

This has been achieved by a combination of reduced gas demand – either through energy efficiency or increased production of renewable energy – and increased imports from alternative suppliers. These are the main pillars outlined in the REPowerEU initiative designed to reduce our dependence on Russian fossil fuels imports. In concrete terms, we have seen more pipeline gas coming from countries such as Norway, Azerbaijan and Algeria, but there has also been a considerable shift to Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) rather than pipeline gas.

This change is fully in line with our European Green Deal ambition and the objective of becoming climbing neutral by 2050. In fact, the REPowerEU proposals are looking to raise the energy efficiency and renewables targets for 2030, going further than the Commission proposed in the Fit for 55 climate package that was tabled last year.

In short, implementing the Green Deal is one of the most important contributions to reducing dependence on Russian imports.

 What is your respond to those who claim that the EU’s environmental targets should be limited in order to tackle the economic and energy crisis?

We fully stand by our targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 and reach climate neutrality by 2050. The climate crisis is upon us and the cost of inaction would be far too high. REPowerEU is our plan to improve energy security without prejudice to our climate ambitions

While some Member States have had to turn to traditional fossil fuels as a short-term solution to the energy price spikes, the EU is committed – and actually legally obliged – to deliver on its mid- and long-term climate objectives.

Let’s not forget that increasing our investment in renewables and in energy efficiency will also help to make our energy more affordable and more independent from imports. All in all, our pursuit of energy security goes hand in hand with our efforts to boost our climate action and accelerate the green transition.






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