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Despite committing to a zero pollution ambition, the European Commission’s latest action plan may not propose any new binding actions to clean up Europe’s air, water and soil.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) is Europe’s largest network of green NGOs.

Today, the European Commission published its much-awaited Zero Pollution Action Plan – one of the last missing pieces of the European Green Deal.

The aim of the plan is to prevent, minimise and remediate the pollution of air, water and soil across Europe, strengthening the EU’s commitment to protect people’s health and the environment.

However, the proposal falls short on ramping up action to prevent pollution at source and instead mainly lists existing legal obligations and ongoing reviews of EU laws.

Patrick ten Brink, EEB Deputy Secretary General and Director of EU Policy said:

 “Science is clear about the urgency to reduce all kinds of pollution, and citizens deserve the right to live in a safe and clean environment. The Commission is capping ambition starting from the wrong assumption – that there are safe levels of pollution. This is a missed opportunity to fully embrace zero pollution”.

From air and water to soil and industrial emissions, below the EEB reacts to each element of the action plan.

Air pollution

Margherita Tolotto, EEB Senior Policy Officer for Air and Noise said:

“The European Commission missed a chance to step up the fight against air pollution with concrete actions, to fill the gaps in other strategies and and to give air quality the relevance it deserves within the EU Green Deal. More monitoring and reporting are not enough: citizens and nature need clean air now.”

Water pollution

Sergiy Moroz, EEB Policy Manager for Biodiversity and Water said:

“The Action Plan recognises that pollution not only threatens our health but also biodiversity, and we’re glad that the Commission confirmed legal reviews of several pieces of water legislation. These updates need to match the real zero pollution vision and make sure other EU sectoral policies and budgets are used to their full potential to tackle water pollution and make polluters pay.”

Industrial pollution

Christian Schaible, Policy Manager on Industrial Production, said:

“It is a relief to have a common understanding that the zero pollution ambition should not stop at borders, however, we still don’t see concrete actions to achieve meaningful results at home. Emphasis on the need of improved tools for benchmarking, compliance promotion and progress tracking will be key.”

Chemical pollution

Tatiana Santos, Policy Manager on Chemicals policy said:

“It’s good to see the Commission reiterating the importance of the precautionary principle and the polluters’ pay principle. However, we see little to no action to actually apply these principles. Looks like polluters still won’t pay in the next decade at least.”

Soil pollution 

Berenice Dupeux, Senior Policy Officer for Agriculture, said:

“The Commission has missed another opportunity to commit to a new legislation addressing soil pollution, despite a clear call from the European Parliament recently. What Europe needs is a stand-alone legal framework to protect soil, similar to the framework that’s already in place for water and air quality. This is the only way to reduce pollution and ensure our soil is able to produce healthy food free of harmful substances.”

Noise pollution

Margherita Tolotto, EEB Senior Policy Officer for Air and Noise said:

“Noise is the second biggest environmental threat to health in Europe after air pollution, and there was no mention of it in the European Green Deal Communication, a big mistake. If the Zero Pollution Action Plan is not the place to announce further comprehensive actions to reduce noise pollution, what is? The European Commission did not pass the test on noise pollution.

Below are the main targets and objectives set out in the Action Plan, but largely based on existing targets already established by other European Green Deal initiatives.

  • improving air quality to reduce the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution by 55%;
  • improving water quality by reducing waste, plastic litter at sea (by 50%) and microplastics released into the environment (by 30%);
  • improving soil quality by reducing nutrient losses and chemical pesticides’ use by 50%;
  • reducing by 25% the EU ecosystems where air pollution threatens biodiversity;
  • reducing the share of people chronically disturbed by transport noise by 30%, and
  • significantly reducing waste generation and by 50% residual municipal waste.

The Plan outlines a number of flagship initiatives and actions, including:

  • aligning the air quality standards more closely to the latest recommendations of the World Health Organisation,
  • reviewing the standards for the quality of water, including in EU rivers and seas,
  • reducing soil pollution and enhancing restoration,
  • reviewing the majority of EU waste laws to adapt them to the clean and circular economy principles,
  • fostering zero pollution from production and consumption,
  • presenting a Scoreboard of EU regions’ green performance to promote zero pollution across regions,
  • reduce health inequalities caused by the disproportionate share of harmful health impacts now borne by the most vulnerable,
  • reducing the EU’s external pollution footprint by restricting the export of products and wastes that have harmful, toxic impacts in third countries,
  • launching Living Labs for  green  digital  solutions  and  smart  zero pollution,
  • consolidating the EU’s Knowledge Centres for Zero Pollution and bringing stakeholders together in the Zero Pollution Stakeholder Platform,
  • stronger enforcement of zero pollution together with environmental and other authorities.