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26th May 2019

WHO praises EU's action against pollution, despite delays

  • In the EU, pollution causes around 400,000 premature deaths every year (Photo: Damián Bakarcic)

The UN World Health Organization (WHO) thinks the European Commission is taking a "big step" forward with its action against members states that exceed EU air pollution standards.

The positive comments came despite the commission holding off on taking the last step in the 'infringement procedure' - the only legal tool that the EU could impose to not complying countries - against Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

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With the procedure, the commission puts increased pressure on member states, which can end up being brought in front of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) - potentially resulting in a fine.

The commission sent its final warnings - the so-called 'reasoned opinion' - to member states one year ago, but have not yet taken that last step: referring the countries to court. In recent weeks, it gave member states another chance to adopt new measures to tackle air pollution. It will come back to the issue in mid-March.

In spite of this delay, the sole fact that the commission can take action "has to be used as an example for other countries of how action has to be promoted", WHO public health director Maria Neira told EUobserver on Tuesday.

"For us, it is a good news that there is such a pressure, and we will contribute as well," she added.

However, "I hope that countries are putting in place plans not just because there is a legislation threatening them, but also because it is good to breathe air that is not going to kill you,"the WHO public health director added.

Neira praised the fact that the EU set legally binding air quality standards to tackle air pollution, even though they are less stringent than those suggested by the WHO.

"WHO criteria are stricter, but this is compensated by the fact that the legislation in the European Union is very strong" and have "to be a model for the rest of the world," she added.

Air pollution is a major issue that causes more than 400,000 premature deaths in the EU every year, according to the European Environment Agency.

National plans

The commission will now take one month to assess the new measures presented by the nine member states, postponing the decision on whether to take any of them to the Court of Justice for not doing enough to fall in line with EU standards.

"We will come back to the matter in mid-March," commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said on Monday (12 February).

Germany announced on Tuesday that it would be willing to make public transport free as part of its effort to meet EU pollution targets.

"We want to make public transport free of charge in order to reduce the number of private cars," three German ministers wrote to EU environment commissioner Karmenu Vella in the letter on Tuesday.

Germany's plan also outlined more conventional measures, such as low emission zones.

On the same day, French environment minister Nicolas Hulot said that he plans to meet with local officials on Thursday, in areas that breach pollution limits, in order to draft a plan by the end of March.

He also announced that a national plan, which was already presented last May, should help reduce health-harming emissions.

Italy's environment minister, Gian Luca Galletti, announced on 9 February that Rome was ready to spend over €5 billion to improve air quality in the coming years, with a "comprehensive, integrated and concrete strategy."

Among the proposed measures is a national programme to upgrade regional and local buses and incentives for sustainable transportation projects.

The plan also includes a national energy strategy which had already been submitted.

An unknown and invisible threat

On Tuesday (14 February), the health association Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL) and the WHO - represented by Maria Neira - hosted an event in Brussels, calling on the EU to take decisive action to clean up air quality.

During the event, the WHO public health director explained that the main problem in tackling air quality issues is that people are not aware of the risk it poses to their health.

Today, 92 percent of people around the world do not breathe safe air, but they don't know that there is a "connection between air quality and diseases," she said.

When people think about diseases related to the environment, they assume that the problem is just about "lack of access to clean water, or pesticides," and don't consider air quality as a major risk.

This does not necessarily happen to people "in Shanghai or Beijing", where pollution is more visible, but instead in places like the EU where the threat is more "invisible."

Worldwide, indoor and outdoor pollution combined is responsible for over 6.5 million deaths every year, a WHO report states.

Bad air quality "causes 36 percent of lung cancers, 34 percent of death from strokes and the 27 percent for hearth diseases," Neira said.

Awareness is particularly important to instigate action "at city and state level."

She insisted that these actions should include the use of renewable energy, better waste management - incineration is used in the majority of cities - and the development of affordable and clean transport.

Also international treaties, in particular the Paris climate change agreement, have to be seen not only as tools to tackle environmental issues, but also for public health.

It is important to say that it is "possible to tackle air pollution, [and] reduce the risk of exposure and the number of deaths," she concluded.

To bring forward its attempt to raise awareness about health risks linked to pollution, the WHO will organise its first conference on air pollution and health in October 2018.

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