Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik has scolded European countries for their inaction on EU laws to combat air pollution,  which causes an estimated 420,000 premature deaths yearly in the Union.

“We are still far from our objective to achieve levels of air quality that do not give rise to significant negative impacts on human health and the environment,” Potočnik told a clean air conference organised on Tuesday (8 January) by campaigner group the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

“We have to recognise that some of the EU air quality standards that were established in the late nineties are not being respected.

“This has led to a situation where the majority of member states are infringing EU law on air quality. As a consequence, the health of many people is suffering, and costs to the health suppliers and the economy are rising”, he told the conference.

The European Environment Agency (EEA), an EU body, contends that shifting to electric vehicles and other anti-pollution measures could cut the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution to 230,000 by 2020.

Officials also called on the EU to crack down on diesel fuel.

"We will have to address the issue of the diesel car," Potočnik said. "Compliance is crucially dependent on reducing real world emissions from diesel cars."

"Diesel vehicles are more efficient, but they emit a higher level of nitrogen dioxide than regular vehicles," Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the EEA, told the conference.

McGlade says inaction on air pollution has strong economic consequences, estimating a price tag of €630 billion for health care and €169 billion in lost productivity.

Commission figures show that the EU can achieve economic gains of 75% for 20% of the overall cost.

But EU officials say that for the EU to push through further measures, the population needs to be convinced that combating air pollution is economically viable.

“If we can win the case there, we are winning the [overall] case”, Potočnik said.

Lack of ambition

Christer Ågren, the director of the Swedish environmental organisation AirClim, slammed EU states for their “lack of ambition” in curbing air pollution.

He said the amount of noxious airborne particles such as SO2, NH3 and PM2.5 could be curbed “without being extremely drastic”.

Ågren criticised governments for their lack of support for high level policy measures and failure to implement existing legislation.

A total of 12 EU countries failed to meet the 2010 National Emissions Ceilings for Nitrous Oxide (NOx) emissions with three not meeting standards for VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and/or NH3, he said.

“We should not wait until 2050 to achieve targets that were set 20-25 years ago. Climate policy has to be strengthened”, Ågren said.

For Potočnik inadequate air policy governance was to blame for the relatively slow progress on air pollution in the EU, which he said had fallen behind the United States. The US has the most stringent air quality legislation in the world.

“In many member states, responsibility for air quality lies with regional or local authorities. However many sources of air pollution are outside their zone of competence”, he said.

“This has forced local authorities to apply more expensive measures to the sources of pollution that they can control.

“So we need to discuss with Member States ways and means of improving this so that our common objectives for better air quality are actually delivered to more people for instance through improving the link between national and local or regional air quality management programmes,” he said.

EU politicians also criticised industry for trying to block greener legislation.

“There is too much lobbying from industry usually against new [greenhouse gas] limits”, said Finnish Green MEP Satu Hassi.

We need the voice of scientists”, she added. “We need ways to scientifically prove the link between health and the environment”.

“We are locked into an old [regulatory] system. We need to get a stronger voice from progressive industry. We need to fight against lobbyists”, Potočnik said.

Climate change and pollution is reducing the world’s gross domestic product by 1.6% a year or some €917 billion, says the Climate Vulnerability Monitor, a report from the Madrid-based humanitarian group DARA and the Climate Vulnerable Forum.