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The Sofia tram network is a main public transportation facility in the Bulgarian capital city. Credit: Gwengoat / iStock

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Blog 1 December 2023

Sofia: first low emission zone in Eastern Europe

Zlatin Dubarinov, Janev and Janev
Bulgaria’s capital introduced the first low emission zone in Eastern Europe on 1 December. Sofia’s bold clean air measures targeting polluting vehicles and domestic heating will reap numerous benefits for residents.

Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, has a long history of air pollution problems. In recent years, the city has been ranked as one of the most polluted cities in Europe. The main sources of air pollution in Sofia are traffic and domestic heating. On 1 December, Sofia introduced the first phase of its low emission zone, the first to be implemented in an Eastern European city. This is the first step in a three phased LEZ that will reduce air pollution from vehicles and domestic heating.

Air pollution has a number of negative health effects, including respiratory problems, heart disease and cancer. It can also lead to premature death.

Low emission zone implementation in Sofia

The low emission zone (LEZ) is a designated area in a city where the most polluting vehicles are not allowed to drive. This is done to improve air quality by reducing the amount of pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM), in the air.

Map of Sofia low emission zone

In Sofia, the LEZ will be implemented in two phases. The first phase, which will begin on 1 December 2023 prohibits vehicles in the lowest emissions category (Euro 1) from entering the city center in the so-called small ring. The second phase, which will begin on 1 December 2024, will prohibit vehicles in the second-lowest emissions category (Euro 2) from entering the city centre. In the winter of 2025, restrictions will come into force in the area that falls within the so-called great ring. Initially, the restrictions will apply to cars in Euro 1, and two years later, from the winter of 2027 – Euro 2. Initial exceptions are foreseen for people who live in the “small” and “big” ring of the Capital.

An additional LEZ for heating is due to be implemented from 2025 onward. The municipality of Sofia has been conducting a campaign change of the polluting heating solutions in households with ecological ones free of charge. By providing a range of choice from air conditioners, pellets heating or connection to the district heating network. The heating LEZ is to be implemented throughout the whole city by 2029.

Campaigns to engage the public

A number of campaign streams have been launched to promote the LEZ in Sofia. These campaigns aimed to raise awareness of the LEZ and its benefits, while encouraging people to use public transportation, walk, or cycle instead of driving. The campaigns have a variety of approaches: raising alarming insights on air pollution, raising awareness on the benefits of clean air for our physical and mental health, informing the public on measures that are being taken by the local government or that can be undertaken individually.

The “Мисия: София без емисии” (Mission: Sofia without Emissions) is a project to promote and raise public support for low-emission zones and other measures, aimed at improving the air quality in Sofia. The project aims to inform the public in Sofia about the benefits of introducing low emission zones for transport and heating and to encourage a change in behaviour so that the topic of clean air becomes a part of daily lives.

The campaign used a variety of channels, including TV, radio, social media, influencers, events and workshops, outdoor promotion. The municipality used our content to spread the message for the benefits of clean air throughout the whole cultural calendar of Sofia for the end of 2023 and during 2024.

For the past 10 months, the campaign (supported by Clean Air Fund) has reached nearly 1 million citizens of Sofia.

“How important for you is the air that they are/will be breathing?” was a message that drove a significant charge during the campaign, impacted a lot of media to use it in their narrative and was used by political parties during the elections for new mayor of Sofia that took place in October and November. Some of the most impactful content include a video viewed 17,000 times, a on Facebook, bTV interview with Dr. Simidchiev from Air4Health, and Facebook posts.

Benefits of the LEZ

The LEZ in Sofia, although by expert opinion not ambitious enough, is expected to have a significant impact on air quality in Sofia. The first phase of the LEZ is expected to reduce NOx emissions by 10% and particulate matter emissions by 5%. The second phase of the LEZ is expected to further reduce NOx emissions by 15% and particulate matter emissions by 10%.

The LEZ is also expected to have a number of other benefits, including:

  • Reduced traffic congestion
  • Improved public health
  • Increased economic productivity
  • Increased use of public and alternative transportation.

After the elections in the beginning of November in Sofia, a new mayor took place with a significantly more ambitious goals and new energy for the governance of the city. One of the main points of the new administration will be properly tackling the issues with the air pollution and congestion in the city. It is safe to expect that a broader program for the development of the low emission zone is to take place in the following years which can significantly contribute for bigger impact on the clean air in Sofia.