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19th Jul 2019

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EU accused of 'half-hearted approach' on air quality

  • Air pollution is a global problem. The World Health Organisation says that nine out of ten people worldwide breathe air with high levels of pollutants (Photo: Ian Sane)

The European Commission recently published a paper to accompany its decisions on improving air quality, titled 'A Europe that protects: Clean air for all'.

It explained, once again, why clean air is of vital interest to EU citizens.

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  • 'We cannot possibly wait any longer,' said EU environment commissioner Karmenu Vella of six EU countries with poor air quality (Photo: European Commission)

"Air pollution is a cause of both chronic and serious diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular problems and lung cancer," the paper said.

It referred to the latest data by the World Health Organisation, which said that nine out of ten people worldwide breathe air that has a high level of pollutants. Some 400,000 EU citizens are estimated to die prematurely each year as a consequence of air pollution.

But is the commission's policy truly leading to clean air for all?

On 17 May, the EU's environment commissioner, Maltese politician Karmenu Vella, announced that the commission had referred six EU members to court.

The move is part of the EU's infringement procedure, which is the commission's main legal tool to get member states in line with EU law.

France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Romania and the United Kingdom will now have to explain to the Court of Justice of the EU why air in their countries consistently was of poorer quality than EU requirements.

At a press conference in Brussels, Vella said that plans the six countries had proposed in the previous months were insufficient to bring down levels of particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

"We have waited for compliance – some of the PM compliance had to be in 2005, the NO2 compliance had to be in 2010, so I think we've waited a long time," said Vella.

"We cannot possibly wait any longer," he added.

Three other EU countries – Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Spain – that were asked to send in new air quality plans, escaped a court referral.

That is because, Vella said, the measures these three announced would improve air quality "in a reasonable time frame".

The Health and Environment Alliance (Heal), a Brussels-based non-profit lobby group, remains unconvinced.

"We consider this a half-hearted approach, and think that with this double standard in pursuing air pollution, EU commissioner Vella sends the wrong message to Europe's citizens, as everyone in the whole of Europe has a right to clean air and to having their health protected," said Heal's director for strategy and campaigns Anne Stauffer.

She told EUobserver via email that it was not clear what was the difference between 'the Six' and 'the Three', and that her organisation was sceptical that the Three would indeed quickly take sufficient measures.

Looking at the World Health Organisation's recently updated colour-coded map of particulate matter pollution, it is clear that the situation is worst in Africa and Asia – large parts are dark red.

While the Nordics, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Estonia, Portugal are largely green – meaning that PM levels are below WHO recommendations – many EU countries have yellow or orange areas.

WHO's recommended air quality levels are more strict than the EU's.

"The new figures from the World Health Organisation remind us of the very urgent need to act decisively on air quality," said Vella.

One of the worst areas, according to the WHO map, is indeed northern Italy, which explains why Italy would be referred to court.

But the situation is equally bad in Slovakia and parts of the Czech Republic, which have for now avoided court referral.

And while the focus has been on these nine EU countries, since their ministers were invited for an air quality ministerial summit in Brussels last January, citizens in other EU countries also suffer from poor air quality.

In addition to the Nine, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Latvia, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and Slovenia are also on the receiving end of the infringement procedure.

These ten additional countries have too high NO2 levels, too high PM levels, or both.

But according to the commission's infringement database, no new formal steps have been taken in several years.

For example, the last official action against Sweden and Slovenia, who have too high PM values, took place on 28 April 2016, when they received an 'additional formal notice'.

Portugal received its last last formal document – a 'reasoned opinion' – on 25 September 2014; Latvia had received an 'additional reasoned opinion' two months earlier.

There is no clear correlation between countries' performance according to the WHO, and whether they were referred to court.

Court is not the main goal

"Every infringement procedure is assessed on its own merit. Infringements are not just mechanical, automatic procedure," said commission spokesman Enrico Brivio.

"The commission has exchanges with members states on progress and measures taken. Sometimes additional information and data are provided and the situation needs to be re-assessed but details of these exchanges are not public," he added.

"The fact that a member state is not referred to court it does not mean inaction on the part of the commission. The ultimate goal of the commission is that member states comply with the EU legislation not necessarily to bring them to court," Brivio noted.

Campaigner Stauffer noted that countries not taken to court now should nevertheless feel compelled to take measures.

"We hope that the referral to the EU court of justice is a wake-up call for the political leaders of all countries currently failing air quality standards, to prioritise clean air measures now," said Stauffer.

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