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19th Jul 2018

Key EU air quality 'summit' to last just two hours

  • Every year, more than 400,000 Europeans die prematurely because of air pollution (Photo: iStock)

The ministerial "summit" on air quality taking place in Brussels on Tuesday (30 January), will last only two hours, the European Commission has confirmed to EUobserver.

The meeting was announced earlier in January as part of "a final push to find solutions to address the serious problem of air pollution in the European Union".

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  • EU commissioner Vella (l) will demand explanations from ministers (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

But on Monday the commission announced that the closing press conference will take place at 11am, and later told this website the meeting itself will began at 9am.

The word summit is often reserved in the EU for meetings of country leaders - and generally last longer than two hours.

Anton Lazarus, spokesman at the green lobby group European Environmental Bureau, said noone should expect a solution to air pollution at the summit - but the meeting did serve a purpose.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that this summit is not about finding a solution [immediately], but about politicising the issue," he said.

According to Lazarus, Tuesday's summit is more about putting the issue of air pollution on the agenda, and putting pressure on member states that are failing to reach EU air quality standards.

"He is hauling ministers in to explain," said Lazarus about European environment commissioner Karmenu Vella.

"It's about making a statement," he added, saying that two hours will be enough for that.

According to Lazarus, air quality seems to have become a political issue for the commission, which is slowly nearing the end of its mandate as EU citizens go to the polls for a new European Parliament in May 2019.

"Great - people are now talking about air pollution," he said.

Vella has invited ministers from nine EU member states that are some of the bloc's worst offenders: Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom.

Of the EU's 28 member states, air quality standards are failing to be met in 23 countries. In the case of 19 of those, the commission has pulled out its legal tool known as the 'infringement procedure' to try and make them comply.

The nine countries invited for Tuesday are in the last step of the procedure before the commission would have to refer their cases to the Court of Justice of the EU, which ultimately could fine them.

Environmental campaigner Lazarus stressed that Tuesday's meeting should not be at the expense of that legal procedure.

"We expect the commission to continue to send governments to court for their failure on air pollution. There has to be a limit to the number of 'final warnings' these ministers receive," his organisation said last week in a press statement.

Not all the nine EU countries send their top officials.

The Czech Republic, Germany, France, and Italy will send environment ministers, but Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and the United Kingdom will be represented by state secretaries from the environment ministries.

Regardless of their rank though, some question whether the environment ministries are actually the ones that need a public scoulding.

Air pollution has a variety of causes, but most of them are not in the remit of environment ministries.

Rather, air pollution is caused by several sectors of the economy, like agriculture and energy, or by citizens' own means of transport.

Dieselgate

Dirty diesel passenger cars are one cause.

Following the diesel emissions cheating scandal, it became clear that the EU commission's environment directorate was aware that diesel cars were emitting beyond EU limits, but it was unable to convince the commission's industry directorate – which was responsible – to take swift action.

The consequences are enormous. Every year, air pollution causes more than 400,000 premature deaths, according to the European Environment Agency.

It has also led to several court cases across the bloc. Just last week, UK group ClientEarth was back in court for its years-long struggle to get the UK government to do more to clean up air quality.

Focus

Air pollution, Europe's largest environmental health hazard

While the health of hundreds of thousands of Europeans' are affected each year by air quality issues, the EU and its member states struggle to implement and comply with legislation that aims to reduce air pollution.

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