Cohesion policy invests in clean air

Investing in air quality for regional development 

Clean air is essential to our health and to the environment. But as a result of rising industrial and energy production, the burning of fossil fuels and biomass, as well as the dramatic rise in traffic on our roads, our towns and cities suffer from air pollution.
The human toll of poor air quality is worse than for road traffic accidents, making it the number one environmental cause of premature death in Europe, with over 390 000 premature deaths every year. It also impacts on quality of life by causing or exacerbating asthma and respiratory problems. From an economic point of view, air pollution causes lost working days and high healthcare costs, with vulnerable groups such as children, asthmatics and the elderly the worst affected. Finally, it damages ecosystems through excess nitrogen pollution (eutrophication) and acid rain.
Investing in the reduction of air pollution therefore not only fosters human wellbeing and supports the protection of natural resources, but also makes economic sense and contributes to regional development.
The Commission’s Clean Air programme : The Commission’s Clean Air programme aims to reduce health impacts of air pollution by half in 2030 compared to 2005. The EU’s air quality objectives rest on maximum concentration levels for harmful substances such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides or particulate matter. Each EU Member State has also committed to national emission reduction targets for the period 2020-29, and more ambitious objectives as of 2030. In addition, source-specific emission targets are included in sectorial legislation (for instance for fuel). 

Assessing the contribution of cohesion policy to clean air targets

Cohesion policy, through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Cohesion Fund (CF), supports European regions and Member States in their efforts to reach the European clean air targets set for 2030. In the 2014 – 2020 period the policy has allocated more than 30 EUR billion to investments directly aimed at reducing pollution.
While tracking cohesion policy expenditure contributing to clean air targets was not explicitly foreseen in the legislation for 2014-2020, it was made possible on the basis of an agreement between Commission services. 
The contribution of cohesion policy to clean air targets, therefore, is tracked through a system of markers that quantifies expenditure contributing to clean air objectives by attributing a certain weight to each category of investment (intervention fields). These markers were developed on the model of the EU climate "Rio markers" (see Tracking climate expenditure under the ESI funds, 2014-2020) according to the following rationale: 
  • Investment categories that are most relevant to reach the clean air objectives are considered fully, with a weight of 100%. These include air quality measures and cycling infrastructures.
  • Categories that partially contribute to the achievement of pollution reduction targets are assigned a weight of 40%. These include (among others) railways, renewable energy, household waste management, green infrastructure and measures that promote energy efficiency. 
  • Following a conservative approach, any other expenditure is not considered as contributing to clean air objectives (weight 0%); in case of doubt, investment categories are attributed to this group. 
The charts below show the volume of cohesion policy investments contributing to the achievement of clean air targets in terms of planned budget, budget allocated by Member States to projects, and expenditure declared by these projects.

Investments in clean urban transport contribute most

The chart below shows the overall allocation to the most important intervention fields in terms of financial allocation that contribute to clean air targets, after the application of the appropriate weight. 

Member States have different investment preferences 

The chart below illustrates the cumulative amount each Member State plans to spend on clean air actions.  
Clicking on the bars corresponding to each country shows you the amounts a specific country plans to spend in each relevant intervention field. Use the buttons to the top left of the chart to navigate back to country level.    
The second chart compares the differences in relative preference by country. 

Investment progress can be tracked by Member State

Investments take time to materialize, from planning through project selection to project implementation. The chart below shows the allocation and the progress by Member State in  implementing the investments that contribute to clean air targets. The chart can be filtered by year to see the progress in time. 

Clicking on the bars for any Country shows you the composition of planned investments by programme and the progress.   Use the buttons to the top left of the chart to navigate back to country level.    

Examples of relevant actions supported by cohesion policy

The categories of expenditure responsible for the largest share of cohesion policy support to clean air are:

Clean urban transport infrastructure and promotion (including rolling stock)

Sustainable mobility contributes to the reduction of polluting emissions as well as to the reduction of congestion, both important from a health point of view. Congestion is resource inefficient; it increases energy consumption and creates additional pollution, it is time and space consuming. It also decreases the attractiveness and quality of the life in urban areas. Greener vehicle technology is therefore only part of the solution.
Sustainable mobility includes several dimensions and components that can be financed through this investment category:
  • sustainable, energy-efficient, accessible for all and affordable public transport systems;
  • a friendly environment for soft transport modes such as cycling and walking;
  • easy access to all neighbourhoods, on foot, by bike, by public transport;
  • local transport networks that need to be well connected to regional networks.
The Commission encourages Member States and Regions to invest in urban mobility initiatives as part of an integrated urban approach, including measures to ensure a broad take up of the new supported transport systems.

Energy efficiency renovation of public buildings, demonstration projects and other measures

Buildings are central to the EU's energy efficiency policy, as they are responsible for nearly 40% of final energy consumption and provide a large untapped cost-effective energy savings potential. Building renovation results in job creation, mainly in local SMEs in the construction sector, health improvements (and thus lower medical costs and increased worker productivity), better energy security and industrial competitiveness. Making buildings more energy-efficient has an immediate effect on air quality because of the lower amount of energy that the buildings will consume.
However, there are still several market failures preventing improvements to the energy performance of buildings, justifying public support in this area to stimulate the emergence of a well-functioning market. This category of expenditure aims to trigger private investments in the sector with a relatively small contribution from the public budget.
Cohesion Policy encourages, under this investment category, the deep renovation of public buildings, as they have an exemplary role that affects the market and stimulates innovative solutions. Deep renovation in this context means investing in energy efficiency improvements that go beyond minimum energy performance requirements and result in significant efficiency improvements (typically more than 60%).
Once again cohesion policy aims at supporting investments that follow an integrated approach, and are linked to, and coherent with, actions such as the implementation cost-optimal supply and demand plans, the use of high-efficiency co-generation of heat and power, and renewable energy.

Railways (Trans-European Transport Network - TEN-T)

Efficient and sustainable transport services are vital to exploiting the economic strengths of all EU regions and supporting the internal market, thereby facilitating economic and social cohesion.
The EU committed to use 10% of Renewable Energy Sources in transport by 2020, complying with the need to focus on sustainable forms of transport, and in particular to prioritise the development of rail.
Investing in this category allows not only to improve connectivity among European regions, but also to reduce the environmental impact of transport (in terms of both greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution); it also contributes to ensuring security of fuel supply, to reduce oil dependency and the sensitivity of the economy to oil price fluctuations.
Under this category, it was encouraged to prioritise investments according to their expected economic development impact, their contribution to mobility, sustainability, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and the Single European Transport Area.
Cohesion policy does not support one off actions, and it favours instead projects carried out in the framework of a sound low-carbon strategy mobility plan or framework.
Overall, supporting clean-air projects allows European Member States and regions to invest in growth-friendly actions, while ensuring environmental sustainability and responsible management of natural resources.
Find out more about Cohesion policy's investments towards the preservation of the environment: 
Find more #ESIFOpenData stories here.


REGIO.G1 - sustainable growth team, contact: 
(European Commission, Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy, Smart and Sustainable Growth Unit)
REGIO.B2 - monitoring and evaluation team, contact: 
(European Commission, Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy, Evaluation and European Semester Unit)
Authors:  Caterina Scarpa, Máté Tas, Sander Happaerts