Aside from a few smartly dressed office workers and a couple of middle-aged trash collectors dressed in yellow, the square in front of Budapest's St. Stephen's Basilica is nearly empty early in the morning.
Later on, the square begins to fill with tourists. And with them come the tourist buses, a common sight in the Hungarian capital. For many, these buses are the preferred way to get around the congested streets. But city center residents, who have to put up with engine noise and exhaust fumes, would be happier if the tourists found another mode of transportation.
"We've had enough of the tourist buses," said Robert Gerhart, who has lived in Budapest's central fifth district for more than 20 years, within sight of St. Stephen's. "For the last 10 years, at least 60 or 70 tourist buses have come by every day. The bus parks, the motor runs, and the air is very bad, and the noise as well."
During the height of the tourist season Gerhart staged a protest against the buses along with about 50 of his neighbors. Armed with protest umbrellas and signs calling for cleaner air, they occupied a number of parking spaces near the basilica during rush hour.
"We had written many letters, and all the responses were negative. And so I thought that we needed to have a demonstration," said Gerhárt.
"Five TV channels showed up, and in the end, the deputy mayor [of the fifth district], Andras Puskas, arrived and said that the tourist bus parking would come to an end."
But despite their success, Gerhart said this hasn't solved the problem in some of the city's other tourist zones, where up to 50 buses a day often sit with their motors idling.
Air pollution like 'secondhand smoke'
"Buses are a big source of air pollution in Budapest," said Peter Lenkei, an environmental consultant with Hungary's Clean Air Action Group, which has been campaigning for officials to address the poor state of Budapest's air since 1988. "The BKK, the public transport authority, has a fleet of very old buses. Added to that are the tourist buses, which are sometimes in an even worse condition. And this air pollution is concentrated in some parts of the city, and the people who live there have had enough."
A 2012 study partially funded by the European Union, called Aphekom, looked at the effects of pollution on health in 25 European cities. The study examined the levels of PM 10 and PM 2.5, the fine polluting particles with a diameter of 10 and 2.5 micrometers or less, respectively. These particles are able to penetrate the human body and in some cases enter the bloodstream, contributing to diseases ranging from cancer to cardiovascular disease to respiratory diseases, as well as allergic disorders like asthma. In October, the International Agency for Research on Cancer officially classified air pollution as a carcinogenic substance, comparing its effects to that of secondhand tobacco smoke.
The Aphekom study showed that European city-dwellers - up to nearly 90 percent - are still exposed to concentrations of particulates well above the levels recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). The study also noted that as many as half a million Europeans die prematurely from the effects of air pollution every year - more than 10 times the deaths from traffic accidents.
'Great challenge for Hungary'
Of the cities examined by Aphekom, Budapest was second worst on the list, not far behind the Romanian capital, Bucharest. The findings weren't much of a surprise for Peter Lenkei, who said that over the years his group has heard from many frustrated residents about the city's bad air. And he said that the pollution is not just linked to the city's traffic problems.
"Household air pollution and heating are also major contributors. In Hungary, people often burn household and garden waste in a furnace or the back garden, and in large quantities," Lenkei told DW. "And in the last couple of years, gas prices have increased and people have gone back to heating with coal and wood, but they don't know how to properly heat with these materials. What's needed is a big campaign to teach people how to properly heat their home, and what they can and can't burn."
"It's a great challenge for Hungary to reverse this trend," said Judit Varga, an environmental counselor with the Hungarian Ministry of Rural Development. She called the issue of particulate matter a nationwide concern for Hungary.
Varga agrees that public awareness campaigns are needed, in addition to programs to replace old and inefficient heating appliances, further develop energy efficiency and provide proper insulation for Hungary's old panel buildings and homes. She pointed out, however, that funding remains a concern.
EU fails to meet the WHO standards
"[The Aphekom study] showed that the air pollution concentrations are very worrisome. Budapest ranks number two above the standards that are recommended by the World Health Organization," said Anne Stauffer, deputy director of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a Brussels-based NGO. "This project shows that if we improved the air quality of the particulate matter to the level recommended by the WHO, people there would gain 19 months on average to their life."
It's not just Budapest that's failing to meet the WHO's air pollution standards. Even though Europe may like to consider itself a center for green policymaking, the current air pollution standards in place in the EU are much higher than the levels of particulates recommended by the WHO as safe.
A study by the European Environment Agency (EEA), released in October, pointed out that ground-level ozone and particulate matter continue to be a problem in the EU, from sources like industry, shipping, agriculture, homes and transportation.
According to Roberto Bertollini, the WHO's representative to the European Union, more needs to be done.
"The air pollution level of PM 2.5 - the small particles most dangerous for health - that the WHO recommends is not more than 10 micrograms per cubic meter, a yearly average. And the EU standard at the moment is 25, so it's much higher," Bertollini told DW. He pointed out that in the United States the current standard is 12.5, half that of the EU. And, he said that the US is considering lowering that standard even further.
'Not an easy battle'
"It should be more of a priority [for the EU], because we still have air pollution cutting life expectancy by nearly nine months on average," said HEAL's Stauffer. "But unfortunately too often it's seen as actually hampering economic development, these kinds of environmental and health measures."
In 2011, the European Commission ordered a series of reviews and consultations on Europe's air pollution policies with the public and stakeholder groups from industry, NGOs and member states. It plans to release the long-awaited review of its policies before the end of the year, an air policy package that the Commission says will include a revised national emission ceilings directive to implement reductions up to 2030. The package is also expected to reinforce existing legislation for industrial emissions and eco-design, among others.
"My main objective is to put the EU on a clear pathway towards achieving the WHO guidelines by setting a program of action up to 2030," said Janez Potocnik, the EU Commissioner for Environment, in October. He added that the 2030 reductions should be realistic, to reach "broad compliance with the WHO guidelines in 2050 at the latest."
But after years of assessments and panel discussions, Stauffer and Bertollini both agree that the problem is not that EU doesn't understand the issue. They, along with many other experts, think the EU lacks the political will to actually implement the necessary reforms.
"We're very concerned that this proposal will actually lack the ambition that we need to really improve the situation in Europe," said Stauffer. And on top of that, the EU can expect resistance from stakeholders such as the oil and car industries, which have done their best to maintain the status quo, as Bertollini pointed out.
"This will be not an easy battle," said Bertollini. "And the time is short, because the [EU] Parliament is going to be in place only for the first months of 2014, and then there will be elections [in May]. So frankly, I'm not sure the new directive will be approved in time for being implemented in the next years. But now is the moment for political action."