HomeEuropeSofia looks to make pollution cuts ‘trendy’

Sofia looks to make pollution cuts ‘trendy’

This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities, a collaborative journalism project exploring the future of cities. Chapter 3 of the project is presented by Holcim.

SOFIA — Under pressure to tackle its pollution problem, Sofia is getting creative — but green groups aren’t convinced by its tactics.

The Bulgarian capital is one of the EU’s most polluted cities; in 2019, it recorded the highest rate of premature deaths related to ultra-fine particulates anywhere in the bloc.

Fixing the issue will mean convincing people to switch to less polluting habits, like changing the way they heat their homes and ditching their cars, and massively ramping up the city’s public transport network.

As part of a €3.7 million EU-funded plan launched last year, the city is rolling out innovative mobility measures aimed at doing just that. Among them: artificial intelligence to determine the frequency and itinerary of bus routes, interactive smartphone apps that reward more sustainable behavior and even a fleet of drones that can spot illegal pollution.

“You cannot change air quality only through administrative measures, it’s got to become trendy, fashionable, for people to care,” said Sevdalina Voynova, director of programs at the Sofia Development Association, which is working with the city on the green transport scheme.

A group of citizens and environmental NGOs already took the municipality to court over its breach of EU air pollution limits and won the case last year.

As the EU moves to tighten its air pollution limits, the pressure on Sofia to take action will only grow.

On Wednesday, Brussels proposed tightening limits for a series of pollutants, including fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide — two of the main sources of bad air in Sofia — which come mainly from heating and transport emissions.

The European Commission proposal also introduces provisions to guarantee citizens have access to justice when limits are breached and can be compensated for health damage caused by excessive pollution — a potential headache for national and regional governments with heavy pollution.

Sofia has “done a lot” to tackle pollution over the past decade, the city’s Deputy Mayor for Transport, Kristian Krastev, insisted in an interview.

The city government is now doubling down on its efforts to implement the EU-funded project, he said, conceding that it’s “complex” and “hard to manage.”

Changing the narrative

The city’s pollution problem is costing it millions.

According to a study published earlier this year, air pollution reduces workers’ productivity and caused Sofia’s economy to lose 13.4 percent of its local GDP in 2019. If nothing is done to tackle the problem, the city could lose up to €15.8 billion by 2024, according to the report.

A view over Sofia, Bulgaria | Louise Guillot/POLITICO

Coal and firewood heating systems are the main contributors to the city’s pollution, accounting for more than 60 percent. The government is aiming to lower those emissions by allowing people to swap their old stoves for less polluting ones or heat pumps.

That’s followed by transport, at 15 percent, which is why the city is doubling down on efforts to roll out more energy-efficient trams, trolleys and electric buses, as well as expand its underground metro network, Krastev said.

The city is also developing software using artificial intelligence to design a system that provides on-demand public transportation “to reach areas [that are] not connected to the network” or are otherwise hard to get to.

The hope is that if residents can request buses to pick them up at their front door, they’ll be less likely to take their car, according to Krastev. The tool is expected to be fully operational by 2023.

As part of its campaign, the city also launched an app that allows cyclists and pedestrians to receive rewards for the trips they take. The choices range from bike helmets to tickets to the city zoo.

But the municipality concedes it’s not been its most successful measure so far: In the capital of 1.3 million, the app has only 400 to 500 daily users, according to Voynova.

Yvaylo Hlebarov, head of the clean air program at Friends of the Earth Bulgaria, said the app amounts to little more than a PR campaign and that the focus should be on improving infrastructure instead.

He argued that the city should be looking to proven fixes like low-emission zones that keep the most polluting cars out of city centers, dedicated bus lanes to avoid them getting stuck in traffic at peak hours, and more cycling lanes.

“Schemes like on-demand public transport might have a place in the future, but we still lack basic things,” he said. “You can change people’s behavior by improving infrastructure.”

Those basic things tend to run into strong resistance from residents, Krastev pointed out.

The city previously tried, and failed, to secure support to set up a low-emissions zone — which would be a first in Bulgaria — and is slated to push the proposal again this week.

St. Alexander Nevski cathedral | Louise Guillot/POLITICO

“We’re going to face hate for implementing the low-emissions zone,” the deputy mayor predicted. “It’s a very slow process. It’s very difficult to make people realize that what we do is important for their health,” he added. “It’s a different mindset in the Balkans. People believe that the road is theirs.”

Krastev conceded that the city has focused on building cycling paths where they are least likely to face resistance, such as on wide, non-residential boulevards. “People want it, as long as it is not in front of their door,” he said.

Changing people’s mindset when it comes to their cars is particularly difficult in former Soviet countries like Bulgaria, according to Angel Burov, associate professor at the University of Architecture and Urban Planning of Sofia.

Cars became a symbol of “freedom” after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and “people don’t want to leave their freedom because it was recently gained,” he said.

But as the EU charges ahead with pollution-slashing legislation, Sofia will have little choice but to ramp up its efforts to improve air quality — or face more lawsuits.

“We cannot give up on green goals,” said Voynova, from the Sofia Development Association. “We need to change the narrative.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities. Chapter 3 of the project is presented by Holcim. The article is produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers. You can sign up for Living Cities here.



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