EU governments agree to do more to improve air quality

By: Christer Ågren

At the EU Environment Council on 5 March, environment ministers agreed that the current air quality rules are fit for purpose, but that more needs to be done to ensure the air quality standards are met across the EU. The conclusions represent the official position of EU governments following a nearly two years long assessment of EU air quality rules as part of a so-called “Fitness Check” procedure (see AN 1/20, p. 26).

The Fitness Check showed among other things that many EU countries have for several years failed to meet existing binding limits on air pollutants, and member states acknowledged that “action taken at local, national and EU level has not always been sufficient to meet air quality standards”, and that “there is scope for improvements to the existing framework to ensure that good air quality is achieved across the EU.”

In line with the Commission’s conclusion from the Fitness Check that limit values have been more effective in facilitating downward trends than other types of air quality standards, the Council agreed that it is “essential to keep using limit values in order to protect the health of citizens.”

Some of the EU air quality limits are significantly less strict than the guidelines issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), and ministers said they “look forward” to the European Commission’s proposal for a revised air quality directive which includes a “possible closer alignment of the EU air quality standards with the WHO air quality guidelines, which are currently being reviewed and updated.”

The Council noted that the main air pollution sources in the EU are transport, both road and non-road; the commercial, institutional and household sector, including residential heating; energy production and distribution; energy use in industry; industrial processes and product use; agriculture and waste.

Specifically for agriculture, the Council said that “ammonia emissions, which are a precursor for particulate matter, have decreased considerably less than other emissions in the past decade inter alia due to a lack of specific source legislation.” Moreover, that “measures to mitigate such emissions are already available and technically and economically viable” and the Council “encourages a wider application of those measures.”

More generally, the Council emphasised “the need for the necessary investments to support the reduction of air pollution as the benefits of air quality policies greatly exceed their implementation cost.”

Environmental organisations broadly welcomed the conclusions. Margherita Tolotto at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), said: “Our governments must now take concrete actions to cut pollution at source. With toxic air causing 400,000 premature deaths every year in the EU and the solutions also boosting climate action, improving air quality should rank very high in their priority lists. Moreover, the European Commission must act now to ensure clean air, also using the tools announced via the European Green Deal, but without waiting for the promised zero-pollution action plan due in 2021.”

ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said: “Dirty air is an ongoing health crisis in Europe. We have the laws to address it but they can, and should, be strengthened as soon as possible. While the European Commission starts to work on a proposal to align EU air quality standards with the WHO recommendations, it has the power to immediately adopt implementing acts and give clear guidelines to competent authorities to ensure better air quality monitoring and stronger plans to clean up the air.”

“The European Commission must also not hesitate to take strong legal action against governments failing to meet their existing legal obligation to address illegal levels of air pollution. There is no reason why people in Europe should have to wait any longer to breathe clean, healthy air,” Taddei said.

Christer Ågren

Source: Joint NGO press release by EEB, ClientEarth and AirClim, 6 March 2020

The Council conclusions can be found at: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/42875/st06650-en20.pdf

The Commission’s full evaluation of the fitness check as well as the evidence collected can be found at: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/air/quality/aqd_fitness_check_en.htm

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