New legal approach to improve EU air quality

Ambient air quality is poor in many EU countries – despite an obligation for governments to ensure good air quality for citizens. Excessive levels of particulate matter (PM10) have led the Commission to take action against 17 member states.

Over the last few years, the Commission has taken Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden to Court for failing to ensure good air quality for citizens. But the Court rulings that resulted only covered the failure to comply with air quality limit values in the past, providing little incentive for member states to act on future exceedances.

This early legal action against member states failing to comply with air quality requirements was based on a breach of Article 13 of the air quality directive, which says limit values for air pollutants such as PM10 must not be exceeded.

The Commission will now also invoke article 23, which says that member states should adopt air quality plans with appropriate measures, so that the exceedance period can be kept as short as possible. This new approach was first applied against Belgium in November last year. On 24 January, the Commission sent formal notices to Bulgaria, Latvia and Slovenia, urging them to take effective measures to reduce PM10 concentrations. Other states will follow. The full list of member states with PM10 exceedances is Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Latvia, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Slovakia and Slovenia.

PM10 limit values were to be met by 2005, but extensions until June 2011 were possible. Such exemptions were subject to a number of conditions. Most importantly, member states had to present an air quality plan setting out the relevant abatement actions during the extension period and demonstrate that they had taken all the necessary steps to achieve compliance by the extended deadline.

Source: European Commission press release, 24 January 2013

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