Europe’s cities are tackling their air pollution – but national governments need to do more

Paris. Or possibly Blackpool. Hard to tell. Image: AFP/Getty.

Despite three quarters of Europeans living, working and travelling around the continent’s cities, it’s fair to say we don’t always give a thought to the quality of the air we breathe. Perhaps it will cross your mind as you weave through rush hour traffic on your bike; but for the most part it’s a hidden threat.

Yet it’s also a serious one, estimated to cause 400,000 premature deaths in Europe and costing our economies €1.4trn each year. We’re risking our health and spending vast amounts - so what’s being done to address the problem?

At EU level, MEPs have just approved binding reductions targets on some of the most harmful pollutants in our air. While this must still be agreed by EU member states, it means that national governments will be obliged to reduce these pollutants within the limits by 2025. The targets are fixed, but they can choose how to meet them.  

This is a really important step for cities and their citizens. Air pollution doesn’t respect borders, and many pollution sources are beyond city control – so setting binding limits at national level will help back up clean air measures at local level, too.

And there are many of these. Think of cyclists’ paradise Copenhagen. When the city realised that cycling was not as popular for journeys of over 5km, it set about creating a network of bike “superhighways”. These are designed to provide maximum comfort and convenience, with staggered traffic lights and footrests at regular intervals. It’s no wonder so many Copenhageners choose to travel by bike.

Public transport is also an important part of the solution. Cities are working hard to make sure that taking the metro, train, bus or tram is as easy as possible. The Spanish city of Gijon is one of a number of cities that have introduced smart city cards. This single card allows users to do anything from taking out a library book to hiring a bike or paying a bus fare.

Edinburgh has unveiled a fleet of hybrid buses covering some of its most polluted commuter routes. They are not only environmentally friendly, but offer the kind of luxury travel many commuters can only dream of, with comfy seats and on-board wifi. Taking the bus doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

Despite these and local measures all over Europe, our air still won’t be clean enough: there is only so much cities can do. So it’s important that national governments to do their bit – and while the new EU targets are a step in the right direction, they could be more ambitious. This is an expensive issue, not just in terms of money but health - so surely it’s worth aiming high?

A lot of the responsibility falls to the national level, whose decisions directly impact on the air we breathe in cities. Motorways are a national competence, but when they cut through cities, the implications are felt locally. Setting speed limits on the motorway? That’s decided at national level too.

And the impact of emissions from agriculture needs to be looked at too. Ammonia from fertilisers and manure is jeopardising our air quality, as is methane from livestock “emissions”. Both of these pollutants are covered by the new EU targets, though not as strictly as we’d like.  

And if you haven’t heard enough about car emissions lately, you’re about to hear more. Cars on our roads are emitting up to seven times the pollution allowed by EU legislation, because official lab tests are unrealistic. More effective testing is needed to reflect the reality of urban driving conditions, where start-stop driving is the norm.

EU member states have agreed on a “real driving emissions” test procedure, which will be implemented in two progressively stricter phases between 2017 and 2021. But these rules still mean that only one sample vehicle will be tested, after which millions of the same type are approved for sale. Spot checks on cars on the road would help reveal if they really are all clean enough. Stricter testing would help make low emission zones, like those in London, Milan and Berlin, more effective.   

So while these new targets are good news, Europe’s big cities are aiming higher. We are doing what we can - but with more ambition at national and EU level, we can do more. Because surely we all want to breathe clean air?   

 Anna Lisa Boni is the secretary general of EUROCITIES, the network of major European cities.


The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.

“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.