Archive image of a pollution episode in Barcelona. EFE
Air quality improves in Spain, but it is nowhere near meeting new European limits

Air quality improves in Spain, but it is nowhere near meeting new European limits

After two decades without updating these thresholds, the European Commission has revised them and they will become mandatory in 2030

José A. González


Friday, 21 June 2024, 13:11

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Spain has made the grade on air quality, but with a big but. The country complies with current legislation, but no measuring station on the Iberian peninsula meets the standards set by the World Health Organization. And if the new EU update is set as a limit, two thirds of the population, or 32.6 million people, would breathe in air "with more pollution than will be allowed in the European Union", said environmental campaign group EEcologistas en Acción in its report Air Quality in Spain during 2023.

After two decades without updating these thresholds, the European Commission has revised them and they will be mandatory in 2030. The new limit for PM2.5 goes from 20 micrograms per cubic metre to 10). PM10 from 40 to 20, ozone (O3) remains unchanged and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) falls to 20 micrograms from 40 micrograms.

Despite being far from the legal limits, air quality in Spain has improved and this is explained "by the fact that we have consumed fewer fossil fuels and that half of the energy consumed in Spain comes from renewable sources," said Miguel Ángel Ceballos, coordinator of the report.

However, many areas, "even with the current limits", warn those responsible for the research, exceed the legal thresholds. In fact 2.9 million people breathed polluted air "with these obsolete limits", said Ceballos. "We cannot be complacent, we have a lot of work ahead of us for 2030," warned Juan Bárcena, head of air quality at Ecologistas en Acción.

Once again this year, the main source of pollution is traffic. This problem is compounded by ozone. "It is the pollutant with the greatest extent and impact, and the one most closely linked to climate change," the report says. "But it does not cause it, it aggravates it," said Ceballos.

Low Emission Zones

"It should not be forgotten that the main emitter of polluting particles is human activity," stressed the coordinator of the report. Low Emission Zones (LEZ's) were created with the aim of reducing "pollutants in cities and limiting the emission of greenhouse gases," said Carmen Duce, coordinator of the environmental organisation.

LEZ's, which are obligatory for municipalities with more than 50,000 inhabitants, came into force at the beginning of 2023 and "there are still many that have not even presented their plans," Duce pointed out. "And of those that have, many are laughable," adds Ceballos. "The administrations are not taking this issue seriously."

A health problem

The leaders of Ecologistas en Acción argue that the only way to solve the pollution problem is through measures to reduce the number of polluting motor vehicles. "We have obsolete legislation and if we don't get on with it, it will happen to us as it has in recent years, with annual breaches of the current regulations," said Bárcena.

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), air pollution is one of the significant health risks for people in Europe, "causing chronic diseases and premature deaths". According to the latest estimates of the EEA, at least 238,000 people died prematurely in the EU due to exposure to PM2.5 particles. In addition, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution caused almost 50,000 premature deaths and ozone caused 24,000 premature deaths.

"We need more action plans for short-term episodes and for the elimination of structural pollution," Bárcena stressed. The fall in pollution in 2023 must not let us forget that we are far from an acceptable health situation according to WHO guidelines, Ecologistas en Acción concluded in its report. "We have a lot of work ahead of us."

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