After the pandemic ceasefire, when most cities improved their air quality, Barcelona returned in 2022 to exceed the limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) pollution set by the European Union. The Eixample station, which normally registers the highest pollutant levels, exceeded an average of 40 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³) NO₂ and ended the year at 42.4. On the other hand, this Monday the Mayor of Madrid, José Luis Martínez Almeida, appeared to boast that the city has met European requirements for the first time and that no station has exceeded 40 µg/m³ NO₂, not even the one in the Plaza Elíptica, which usually records the worst indicators and stayed at 39.7 µg/m³.
The two train stations (Eixample and Plaza Elíptica) are something like the “mine canaries” of Barcelona and Madrid, reporting the most pollution, the thermometers with the worst readings, and European regulations dictate that the cities have no stations can exceed 40 µg/m³. Barcelona has 11 stations that measure air quality and Madrid has 24. The 2022 results are partly explained by the weather. Madrid registered values above the limit in Plaza Elíptica until September, but in November there were 18 rainy days and in December 15 with data from the Retiro station. On the other hand, in 2022 Barcelona has experienced a year with several temperature records, little rain and little wind.
The data for 2022 in Barcelona, published from official sources by the information portal Contaminació Barcelona, shows that the situation in Barcelona is no longer as bad as in 2019 (in the Eixample there was just under 50µg/m³ NO₂ ), but that the city in the past after the two-year ceasefire caused by the pandemic is once again violating the legal limits set by the European institutions. The city councilor for the climate emergency, Eloi Badia, stated before Christmas and before the possibility of closing the year in violation of the legal limit that the city had made progress with measures such as the environmental zone (ZBE) but had to “keep working”. to reduce pollution.
All this is happening while the European courts have just condemned Spain for the pollution of Barcelona and Madrid and the European institutions themselves are waiting to lower the legal limit on urban pollution by NO₂ in order to bring it in line with the values set by the World Health Organization (WHO), although there is no date yet. And one more relevant fact: the increase in pollution in Barcelona is occurring in a city that in 2020 was at the forefront of Spain’s implementation of an ambitious Low Emission Zone (LEZ) that, due to its extent, covers almost 100 square kilometers and in which traffic is prohibited is the most polluting cars that do not have an eco-label.
In Barcelona, the 2022 records show worrying data on large particle (PM10) pollution. PM10 levels are increasing compared to 2021, especially at traffic stations. They comply with the 40 micrograms per cubic meter set by Europe, but exceed the limit of 15 micrograms per cubic meter set by the WHO (29.89 in traffic “with a rise of concern” and 22.10 in the background, away from traffic). a reference value. “The global assessment is that it is necessary to define more measures, we know we are not complying and there are some improvements due to the renewal of vehicles on the road, but the limit will decrease in the medium term,” warns Miquel Ortega, head of the Contaminació Barcelona. After announcing the reduction in requirements, the European Commission must now publish a regulation that member states must comply with, but set a calendar that the expert puts between the years 2027 and 2030. Ortega also warns of the lack of a more complete measurement network in Barcelona: “Sky screams, especially for the small particles, PM2.5, which are the most harmful because they penetrate more easily when you breathe: measurements are only taken at the Palau Reial station, which is not for the However, traffic is determined in the background and the data is published months too late,” he laments. Barcelona has 11 measuring stations. Two close to transport (Eixample and Gràcia); eight “urban background”, a little farther from traffic; and a suburb in Guinardó Park.
Eixample Respira, the civic organization that has for years called for drastic reductions in traffic in the district that supports it most and is part of the platform that launched the idea of a city toll, understands that the data ” This shows that the measures promoted by the Barcelona Metropolitan Region (AMB), in particular the ZBE, have not been effective enough to reach a legal level,” emphasizes Guille López.
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Faced with the setback in Barcelona, triumphism in Madrid. The capital is meeting “for the first time in its history” the air quality requirements set by the EU in the 2008 directive, the mayor reported at a press conference, where he expressed his chest at this achievement, which he praised so highly, on “the attitude of the Madrider” and their “new policy” focused on the “comprehensive strategy” Madrid 360. “The combination of environmental and economic sustainability was possible. Thank you Madrid,” the mayor tweeted after the performance, in which he went so far as to affirm that “Madrid is finally breathing”. In reality, as Ecologistas en Acción reminded him, the city “remained on the fringes”. “We are talking about a deviation of just one microgram here. It’s a huge leap from there to realizing the problem is over,” says one of their spokespersons, Juan Bárcena.
The guideline is not met if a single observatory in a city exceeds the limit of 40 µg/m³. The capital violated this between 2010 and 2021. In the last two years, only one station exceeded the limit, Plaza Elíptica, with 41 µg/m³. In 2022, this black point, where a new LEZ with fines has been set up since February, was three tenths lower at 39.77 µg/m³, which made it possible to comply with the minimum.
Ecologists in Action believes it is “a relative triumph” as there has been “no significant improvement” in air quality. “To say that we can breathe now is nonsense, pollution remains at very high levels and close to the maximum,” says Bárcena, reminding that the NO₂ levels in Madrid are “double those set by the European Commission new annual limit value proposed for 2030. 20 µg/m3, quadrupling the World Health Organization’s annual recommendation, which was set at 10 µg/m3 in 2021. Plaza Elíptica is Madrid’s Eixample but there are other black spots like the entrance on Avenida de Extremadura (A-5) where the situation is similar or worse but there is no measuring station.
Bárcena attributes compliance with the “23-year delay” rule – the limit was set in 1999 – to multifactorial reasons, the main reason being the weather. “There were favorable atmospheric conditions for the spread of pollutants. It has rained more than usual in the last two months, 18 days in November and 15 in December, and there has been no sustained anticyclonic situation with thermal inversion and zero wind, triggering the Madrid readings. By September “the data was worse”.
The spokesman adds that “the free/lower price” of public transport may have had some impact, requiring “a transfer of the car to the Cercanías at the entrance to the A-42 through Plaza Elíptica” and the “very inadequate” ZBE of the Square that “hardly prohibits the circulation of diesel cars that are 17 years old and petrol cars that are 20 years old”. He also mentions the partial maintenance of teleworking after the pandemic and the awareness of citizens, ” far above that of the politicians”.
For Ecologists in Action, “we need to move in the opposite direction” to what the Madrid City Council has indicated, which is asking it to decide, drastically and urgently, the number of cars entering and passing through the city every day to reduce in order to achieve a significant improvement Air improvement. Más Madrid municipal groups and the PSOE have criticized the mayor, who they believe is a climate change “denier” for boasting about getting “a five-scratch”.
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