29th Mar 2023

EU proposes stricter rules against air and water pollution

  • Some 300,000 people die prematurely every year in the EU as a result of breathing toxic air but stricter rules could reduce this number by 70 percent in the next decade (Photo: Damián Bakarcic)
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As part of efforts to achieve zero pollution by 2050, the European Commission unveiled stricter rules to tackle air and water pollution on Wednesday (26 October).

"Day in and day out, we get new information about the degree to which public health is directly endangered by pollution," EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans told a press conference.

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Now, babies are born with microplastics in their blood, and forever chemicals are detected in self-bought fish and homegrown vegetables. Societies are paying a high cost for pollution with taxes, health and human lives, Timmermans said.

"The longer we wait to reduce pollution the higher the costs to society," he warned.

On Wednesday, the EU executive finally proposed revising EU air quality rules to align standards "more closely" with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, for example, by cutting dangerous air pollutants such as particulate matter by more than half by 2030.

The revision also includes provisions for people to seek compensation in the case of a breach of air quality rules. 

"Air pollution standards to date have not been easily enforceable, so we're also tackling this and ensuring that [there] will be easier access to justice for those affected by poor air quality," Timmermans said.

Currently, there are ongoing infringement procedures against 18 member states for failing to implement existing EU air-quality rules. But the European Court of Justice has already confirmed that Italy, Bulgaria, Poland and France had illegal levels of air pollution.

Over 90 percent of the EU's urban population is exposed to high levels of fine-particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone above those recommended by the WHO, according to the European Environment Agency.

Nevertheless, the implementation of new rules will not be immediate, meaning EU member states will not be obliged to comply with more strict thresholds for several years.

Overall, some 300,000 people die prematurely every year in the EU as a result of breathing toxic air but stricter rules could reduce this number by 70 percent in the next decade, according to EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius.

Activists have welcomed new rules as a step in the right direction, but they warned that the proposal lacks enforcement mechanisms.

"Air quality standards are an empty promise if there are no financial sanctions in place to hold governments accountable if they breach them," said Ugo Taddei, a campaigner from ClientEarth.

'Polluter pays'

Additionally, the commission put forward a proposal to improve the treatment of urban wastewater and ensure less pollution in rivers, lakes, groundwaters and seas.

New rules especially target the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries which are responsible for the vast majority of toxic micro-pollutants found in EU wastewaters.

Building on the so-called 'polluter pays principle,' Brussels proposed a new scheme that will require companies to pay for the cost of removing micropollutants in wastewater.

To ensure cleaner rivers, lakes and wetlands, the commission has also suggested expanding the list of pollutants that require strict control by local and national authorities.

A total of 25 substances, including PFAS, a large group of the so-called forever chemicals, pesticides such as glyphosate, a component of plastic packaging and some pharmaceuticals, will be added to the list.

"It's still a case that pharmaceuticals, pesticides and PFAS can be found in Europe's freshwater at levels that endanger the aquatic environment," said Sinkevicius.

The draft legislation will have to be approved by both EU countries and MEPs.

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