Cooperation and innovation for cleaner air

Photo credit: Anna Engleryd

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution is a framework for European, North American and Central Asian countries to cooperate on tackling the pollutants that cause negative effects on human health and ecosystems, such as ammonia, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter, which come from sources including industry and transport. The Convention’s Chair, Anna Engleryd, a senior policy officer from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, discussed the main current challenges for the Convention.

Is air quality in Europe getting better or worse?

In general it is getting better. The main driver for the work on air quality in Europe today is health – there is a lot of public concern about air pollution episodes we have in cities in Europe. Work on air quality is also driven by the connection with climate change and energy policies. Most of the measures taken for climate reasons – for example, energy policies such as energy efficiency or switching to cleaner fuels – also have significant and positive impacts on air pollution.

What main challenges do you face in terms of the ongoing work within the Convention?

One problem area we are working on, which is also very relevant for the European Union, is to speed up action in countries to the east of Europe in Central Asia and the Caucasus, which are also parties to the Convention. Those countries are lagging behind a little in ratification of our protocols and also on action to reduce air pollution. Speeding up action in those countries would have a significant impact on air quality in Europe, considering how air pollutants behave and migrate between regions.

Another main challenge is to work on those areas where there is a conflict between climate mitigation and air pollution goals. For example, there are the issues of diesel cars and biofuels – using biofuels might be good for the climate but less good for air pollution [while diesel cars have lower carbon dioxide emissions than petrol cars, but higher air pollutant emissions]. So it is a question of integrating policies in different areas so that we are working to improve the two areas at the same time, not solving one problem while creating another.

Have you found any answers on those two issues, diesel and biofuels?

One answer – as you see now in Europe – is that many cities are working on solutions themselves when it comes to the diesel issue. There have been bans announced, and limits placed on cars’ access to city centres. Meanwhile, in Sweden, we are working to make sure there are no financial incentives to choose a diesel car. Previously, diesels were classed in Sweden as eco-cars, so you could get a grant to buy a diesel car. That is being taken care of and I think the diesel issue is being worked on efficiently.

On biofuels, developments are slower. We are doing quite a lot of work on promoting best use of biofuels – that if you are heating your house with a wood burner for example, you should use modern technology, you should use dry fuel and the right techniques. That is ongoing work, but it is not as fast and powerful as, for example, a city banning diesel cars.

On the slow pace of change in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the problem there is to raise the political profile of air pollution, to increase the political knowledge and to find champion countries. These could benefit from being frontrunners and their politicians could gain some political points by, for example, ratifying air pollution agreements and seeing quick results. We are working to find these champion countries and are cooperating with the European Union to help those countries build up the necessary basis to ratify protocols and work on air pollution. For example, help is provided with building up emission inventories and embedding technical knowledge. There is a lot of work going on, but it moves slowly.

Could more be done to facilitate faster transfer of technologies and innovation to combat air pollution in lagging countries?

We don’t have a lot of money to put into transfer of technologies, but we offer capacity-building and awareness-raising programmes and through those we are very mindful to highlight new technical solutions. In that sense I hope we can have some effect on transferring new and innovative solutions. We also in the convention do regular follow-ups to see if new ideas have been implemented.

Often what is most interesting is not new technology as such but new ideas about how to use and spread emerging technologies – for example, innovative ways of sharing electric vehicles, not only car-pooling but other ideas about electric cars used in connection with workplaces or universities so the cars become more prevalent in cities. Similarly there are interesting ideas about sharing electric bicycles. It’s not a new technology, but there are good ideas about how to scale up such useful solutions.

For further information

Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution https://www.unece.org/env/lrtap/welcome.html

Through the 1999 Gothenburg Protocol to the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, parties agreed to national limits on some pollutants. The protocol was updated and extended in 2012 with stricter limits. It is implemented in the European Union through the EU National Emissions Ceiling Directive (2016/2284/EU).