New WHO air pollution guidelines are a wake-up call for city leaders

September 22, 2021

New guidelines published today by the World Health Organization (WHO) reaffirm the need for policymakers to aim for significantly lower levels of air pollution to protect people’s health. City leaders should listen to the science and shift now to zero emission transport, campaigners warn.

New WHO guidelines [1] suggest that concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), an outdoor air pollutant mainly caused by fossil fuelled cars and vans, should be reduced below 10µg/m3 at a minimum. These limits will significantly reduce health risks and are 4 times stricter than those previously recommended by the WHO and enshrined in EU and UK clean air laws [2].

Barbara Stoll, director of the Clean Cities Campaign, said: “The science is clear and these guidelines further underline the urgent need to clean up our air.  Even low levels of toxic air from polluting cars and vans have a devastating impact on Europeans’ health. City leaders must shift now to zero-emission transport to go well beyond current limits.”

Breathing NO2 causes chronic diseases such as asthma and chronic lung disease and the premature deaths of 54,000 Europeans every year and people living in cities are most affected [3].

Analysis by the Clean Cities Campaign shows that Europe’s largest cities currently exceed the new NO2 limit values recommended by the WHO by at least 16 µg/m3 [4]. NO2 levels in Paris and London are more than 200% higher than those recommended today.

The EU clean air laws, which set legally binding air pollution targets that both EU Countries and cities have to comply with, are based on existing WHO air pollution limits.

Barbara Stoll adds: “EU laws need to be fully aligned with the latest science, but local leaders shouldn’t wait around to protect people’s health. Cities must urgently commit to zero emission transport now.

 The EU clean air laws are due to be reviewed in 2022 [5].



Note to editors:

[1] See the updated WHO guidelines on outdoor air pollution: 

[2]Both the European Union and the UK have set an annual limit value for NO2 of 40μg/m3. See EU’s air quality legislation and UK’s air quality legislation

[3] European Environment Agency: Air quality in Europe – 2020 report:

[4]Analysis by the Clean Cities Campaign using air quality data obtained from European Air Quality Portal: Full data set is available upon request.

[5] More on the upcoming review of the EU Ambient Air Quality Directives:

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