MEDIA BRIEFING: EU ‘toxic bloc’ air pollution summit

EEB’s Question and Answer Introduction to Next Week’s Summit

What’s happening?

The European Commission has summoned ministers from countries that are facing court action for breaking EU laws on air quality to attend a summit in Brussels next week (On Tuesday 30 January).

Environment ministers will need to explain themselves and attempt to justify their failures. While it’s embarrassing for the countries involved, the real victims are people breathing polluted air in towns and cities across Europe.

Which countries are involved and why?

The Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom have all already been given final warnings for significant and consistent breaches of EU limits.

In a blog post published last week Commissioner Vella said that the EU cannot sit by as 400,000 Europeans die from poor air quality each year. He wrote: “It is clear that the agreed air quality limits for several key pollutants had to be met already many years ago. It is also clear that the measures currently in place or planned by the Member States are not enough to meet the agreed limits without delay.”

Aren’t there other countries in breach of the standards? Why haven’t they been summoned?

According to the latest EEA air quality data, in 2016:

  • 19 EU countries were breaching the annual limit value for nitrogen dioxide (NO2);
  • 7 countries were breaching the annual limit for fine particles (for either PM10, PM2.5 or both, as in the case of Italy, Poland and Croatia);
  • 14 countries were breaching the daily limit for PM10 more than 35 times per year – which the the maximum allowed under EU law.

Figures for 2015 are largely similar, with a high number of breaches for NO2 and PM10 limits.

The EU has already sent cases against Bulgaria and Poland to court. Bulgaria was the first country to be ordered to take action to improve its air quality in a landmark ruling in April last year. A ruling against the Polish government is expected on 22 February 2018.

The European Commission seems to be focusing this summit on those countries which are in the last pre-litigation phase, i.e. those that have already been sent a final warning (“reasoned opinion”) and are about to be referred to the ECJ.

So are the European limits really strict?

Not compared to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

While no level of air pollution is considered “safe”, the WHO does offer science-based guidelines, which are significantly stricter than the legal limits set in EU law.

For nitrogen dioxide, the EU annual limit is in line with the WHO guideline but the latter might be revised downwards in 2019-2020, when the WHO will come up with updated guidelines.

For PM2.5, the finest particles which have a high impact on human health, the EU legal limits are far above what the WHO recommends. Limits in the US and Japan are stricter than in the EU.

In 2015, 24 EU countries were failing to meet the more stringent WHO limit for PM2.5.

Is this summit just a way to avoid sending countries to the European Court of Justice?

We hope not.

Commissioner Vella has made clear that action before the courts – so-called “infringement proceedings” – must continue and has said that in some cases legal proceedings are “the only way forward”.

What do you expect from this summit?

  • Clear and workable commitments from environment ministers to take action to tackle harmful air pollution
  • A renewed commitment from the European Commission to speed up ongoing infringement proceedings and to launch new cases against other persistent offenders

Do you have a quote I could use?

“Europeans want clean air, not hot air. While this summit is a welcome opportunity to put air pollution at the top of the political agenda, another talking shop won’t solve Europe’s air pollution crisis. 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.”
Margherita Tolotto, EEB Policy Officer

For more information:

Anton Lazarus, Communications Officer


MEDIA BRIEFING: EU ‘toxic bloc’ air pollution summit
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