• Print version

The 14th European Forum on Eco-Innovation: air quality means quality of life


Eco-innovation in the widest sense is needed if cities are to become more sustainable, particularly by improving air quality through the management of urban mobility, delegates at the 14th European Forum on Eco-Innovation were told. The forum was the latest to be organised by the European Commission's Eco-Innovation Action Plan Unit, to explore how eco-innovation can influence developments and result in better outcomes across all environmental policy areas.

Speakers at the conference, which took place in Prague from 23-24 May 2013, outlined a variety of ways in which eco-innovative thinking is leading to new approaches to the issues of traffic management, urban planning and air quality in their cities and regions, including through the development of urban green infrastructure, through technological fixes, through behavioural changes, such as encouraging greater public transport use, and through innovative approaches to urban planning.

Vincent-Henri Peuch, Head of the Atmospheric Composition Division at the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts, framed the problem of urban air pollution for delegates. He said that each person breathes 14 kilogrammes of air per day and “minimal traces of pollutants in air make a big impact on health.” Air quality monitoring for more than a century in some cities has shown that “air composition is changing”. The amount of carbon dioxide in air has increased, but so have other pollutants. Modern measurements of the concentration of ozone, for example, show a level five times higher than the 1870s.

Not all of the news is bad, however. Peuch pointed out that measurements of coarse particle pollution in Paris (PM10 - particulate matter) show that in this respect the air is much cleaner than in the 1950s. This shows that measures taken to improve air quality have worked. Globally, the Gothenburg Protocol to the United Nations Geneva Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (implemented in the European Union via the National Emissions Ceilings Directive, 2001/81/EC) has proved an effective tool to reduce some of the most damaging pollutants, Peuch said.

Partnership in preparation

While the overarching goals might be set internationally or nationally, however, it is cities that must take eco-innovative steps and implement measures that will ensure the goals are achieved. The European Union has established a Smart Cities and Communities European Innovation Partnership (EIP) to provide assistance by demonstrating energy, transport and information and communication technologies in urban areas.

Henriette Van-Eijl, Policy Officer, European Commission, Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport, said that the Smart Cities EIP will not just be about demonstration projects. There is huge scope for cities to share experience about eco-innovative approaches, especially as they explore the opportunities that open data and data sharing might bring, and the EIP will explore how to scale up the best solutions. The EIP is scheduled to adopt its strategic implementation plan in October 2013, and to begin implementation of the plan in 2014.

Sustainable behaviour

A prominent theme at the Forum was behavioural change. Eco-innovation is also about this, not just about technological innovation. In many cases, people can be persuaded to adopt greener transport habits depending on how ideas are framed and put to them. Simon Goddard of Gehl Architects, which has worked on strategic planning for cities, said that policymakers are driven by targets - such as an objective to reduce air pollution by a certain amount - but that urban dwellers are more directly concerned with quality of life, of which clean air is a fundamental part.

Urban areas can become more sustainable by emphasising quality of life, and by building this into planning decisions, Goddard said. This should be the goal that policymakers should work towards, and improvements in air quality will follow. People “care about overall quality of life, they care about active living and recreation and they care about the economy.” Cities can progressively become healthier by opening up green spaces, emphasising pedestrianisation and putting in place appropriate traffic restrictions. If the result is better quality of life, “nobody really notices or cares that there are not any cars there any more,” Goddard added.

The city of Nantes in France is putting these principles into practice. According to Jean-François Retière, Vice President of Nantes Métropole in charge of Commuting and Transportation, its urban strategy has six main objectives: attractiveness, optimal expense, behavioural change, environmental benefits, mobility for all, and a better link between urban planning and mobility. By promoting a diversified but coordinated transport network that does not ban the car, but emphasises other options, Nantes has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions, and increased cycling and use of public transport.

Key points of consensus

The forum explored a wide range of specific eco-innovative ideas for urban sustainability and cleaner air, from planting the right kind of trees that do not emit biogenic volatile organic compounds, which react with nitrogen oxides to form ground-level ozone, to electromobility, to the deployment of the power of public procurement to promote sustainability. For example, Heather Allen, Programme Director for Sustainable Transport at TRL, noted that buses are as expensive as Ferraris, but vehicle makers “see the bus market as a very small part of their market,” and invest relatively little in their design and development. More creative approaches to procurement could help change this.

Other approaches discussed at the forum included the potential benefits of making public transport free - with Tallinn, Estonia having recently become the first capital city to do this - and limitations on the use of cars in city centres to promote modal shifts. Paolo Gandolfi, Deputy Mayor of Reggio Emilia in Italy, where charging schemes for cars entering the city have been combined with an expansion of cycling networks, said that networking and the exchange of ideas between cities can be a tool to convince citizens of the viability of new ideas. Decision makers must offer citizens a “vision” and show that new ideas are not crazy because they are also being implemented elsewhere, Gandolfi said.

The conference concluded with consensus on a number of points to be taken into account when planning sustainability for urban areas:

  • Achieving sustainability and better air quality should be reframed as achieving a better quality of life: a goal all citizens can agree with.
  • Urban sustainability proposals should be clearly set out: citizens want to know what the starting point is, and what the benefits will be. In this respect, demonstration projects and comparison with other cities can be a great help.
  • In the quest for quality of life, people should be involved and should be asked for their ideas. Timo Makela, Director, European Commission Directorate-General Environment, International Affairs, LIFE and Eco-innovation, commented in his closing remarks that there is no point in “consultations just as window dressing.”
  • There is a move towards open data and cities should make the most of this. Making traffic data available, for example, has led to development of applications that have eased congestion in some cities. However, technological steps should be planned; cities are advised to have ICT master plans, and to train city officials appropriately.
  • Public procurement remains a tool with a largely untapped potential. Innovation in financing models can unlock new approaches to public procurement. For example, co-financing of a project can help to push it forward to completion. Deployment of public funds in the right circumstances to free public transport can produce overall benefits.
  • Cities need to have a vision, and to express the vision through a sustainable urban mobility plan (SUMP). In this way, planning can be consistent, different departments can cooperate better, and bodies such as universities can be included. The SUMP can also help businesses to understand the city's objectives, and might help persuade companies to locate their operations to a city where they know sustainability is taken seriously.

More information