Air pollution is a major environment-related health threat causing 4,2 million deaths every year. According to the World Health Organisation, 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits. Air pollution is a cause of chronic and serious diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular problems and lung cancer. Although air quality in the European Union has improved over the last decades (the main air pollutants decreased by 10% to 70% since 2000), the quality of life of EU citizens remains hampered since EU air quality standards are not being met. Particularly severe situation is in urban areas. The European Environmental Agency estimates that air pollution causes more than 400,000 premature deaths in EU per year.
In 2013, the EU adopted the Clean Air Programme for Europe to effectively address air pollution and to further reduce emissions of air pollutants until 2030. The EU’s clean air policy rests on three pillars:
1) Ambient air quality standards for ground level ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, dangerous heavy metals and a number of other pollutant, set out in the Ambient Air Quality Directive.
2) National emission reduction targets for the most important trans-boundary air pollutants: sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, established in the National Emissions Ceiling Directive.
3) Emissions standards for key sources of pollution including vehicle and ship emissions, energy and industry.
The European Commission has intensified engagement with its member states to help them deliver compliance with air quality legislation and facilitate their efforts. Since the Commission is particularly concerned that persistent exceedance of limit values continues, it has adopted the Communication A Europe that protects: Clean air for all, setting out wide-ranging policy to support and facilitate necessary measures. The Commission has pointed out that compliance with air quality legislations may be achieved, inter alia, via use of its legal powers to enforce the relevant EU legislation.
Acknowledging that cost-effective solutions exist and can support innovation and have a positive net impact on EU competitiveness, the Commission provides examples of measures to reduce air pollution including measures to reduce emissions from the transport sector; measures to reduce emissions from power and heat; measures to reduce emissions from industry; and measures to reduce emissions from the agricultural sector.
The Commission will seek to step up cooperation with member states via Clean Air Dialogue to support their implementation efforts and to ensure optimal synergies with the Energy Union and EU climate change policies (e.g. the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition). EU Urban Agenda and Urban Innovative Actions are expected to facilitate the cooperation with and among cities across the EU to address air pollution in urban areas. In order to facilitate investment in sustainable projects in European cities – the Commission and the European Investment Bank put in place URBIS – a new advisory for urban authorities to improve cities’ access to technical and financial/investment platforms.
In addition, the Commission is committed to continue its enforcement action. For particulate matter, the Commission has been pursuing infringement procedures against 16 member states and the Court of Justice of the EU already issued two judgments addressing the most severe particulate matter exceedance in the EU – Commission v Bulgaria in 2017, Commission v Poland in 2018. For nitrogen dioxide, infringement procedures have been launched against 13 EU member states. In January 2018, the Commission has called upon the member states to address the sources of the current exceedances and bring forward compliance as soon as possible.
The Commission has intensified its enforcement action in May 2018 and referred France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Romania and the United Kingdom to the Court of Justice of the EU for failing to respect agreed air quality limit values and for failing to take appropriate measures to keep exceedance periods as short as possible. In particular, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are referred to the Court over persistently high levels of particulate matter, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are referred to the Court for failure to respect limit values for nitrogen dioxide, and for failing to take appropriate measures to keep exceedance periods as short as possible.
The Commission concludes that improving air quality remains a challenge for Europe and requires a comprehensive approach across different sectors, from transport, energy, to local planning, bringing together all the different actors concerned.