The European Commission has begun a comprehensive review of existing laws that could lead within a year to changes in the 2008 air quality directive.
The directive is credited, along with a host of other pollution-related laws, in steady improvements in air quality since the EU started setting standards in the 1990s.
Still, major challenges lie ahead. Levels of some noxious pollutants are on the rise after a decade of declines, and a new report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) shows that more than 95% of city residents in the European Union regularly breathe ozone levels that exceed the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended levels.
“It’s very clear we’ve been able to reduce emissions but that those emissions have not translated into ambient air quality,” Jacqueline McGlade, who heads the Copenhagen-based EEA, said recently in Brussels.
“We have in Europe put in place fairly aggressive targets to reduce emissions,” she said, “but actually what we now understand is that the rules are nowhere near rigorous enough.”
The EEA’s 2011 report on air quality, released on 9 November, shows broad historical improvements, with concentrations of sulphur dioxide falling by more than half in the decade ending in 2009 and the percentage of EU citizens exposed to sulphur exceeding health regulations falling to near zero. Carbon monoxide, a gas formed from burning fossil fuels, has fallen by as much as half.
Yet the report also shows that beginning in 2008, levels of nitrogen oxide (NO2), ozone and particulate matter have risen, fuelling concerns about overall air quality especially in urban “hot spots”. Health experts say exposure to such pollutants affect humans not only outdoors, but at home and in the office through open windows or air conditions systems without proper filters.
While environmentalists call for further steps to improve air quality, efforts to cut pollution can be politically complicated. For example, EU policies that encourage the use of diesel engines to cut greenhouse gas emissions have contributed to rising pollutants because diesel exhaust contains nitrogen.
In addition, most EU countries have spotty records at enforcing the European Commission’s 2008 air quality directive. Pressure to create economic growth in the face of the eurozone debt crisis and receding economies creates pressure to overlook policies that might crimp growth.
One Commission official told EurActiv that the national leaders – who have ultimate sway over legislation in the European Council – form the biggest hurdle in strengthening air quality rules over the next year.
Health or industry first?
Health advocates, for their part, say human concerns should be paramount.
“I think a lot of the time we talk about the cost to say industry, or how much it would cost to actually adopt measures to reduce air pollution, but we do not talk enough the benefits we would get for people’s health,” said Anne Stauffer, deputy director of the Health and Environmental Alliance in Brussels.
Stauffer says policy-makers face mounting pressures over anticipated changes to air quality rules even though some EU air quality standards are more relaxed than those set by the WHO.
“We have a huge challenge here with the review process now because we see that member states are really struggling to keep with the air quality limits, and at the same time we get all this new science in about the health impacts,” Stauffer said.
“I think that there is a real danger that the EU law on air quality gets weakened instead of strengthened.”
Poor air quality leads to complications ranging from itchy noses to serious respiratory and cardiac complications, health experts say. Some studies say bad air causes nearly 500,000 deaths per year in the EU – 0.1% of the bloc’s population – while the EEA’s upper estimates show that anti-pollution measures and factors such as the rising use of electric vehicles will cut deaths to 230,000 in 2020.
And rising nitrogen and ozone levels affect more than human health, damaging vegetation, soil, water and even buildings, experts say.
A US model for Europe
Potočnik has vowed to make air quality a priority and officials say there is support in the European Commission for a comprehensive air quality policy akin to the US Clean Air Act, a landmark 1970 law that has guided environmental policy and enforcement.
The Environment commissioner now oversees 21 directives related to air quality, pollution and industrial emissions, while other emissions are regulated under transport legislation, while still other policies are aimed at boosting electric vehicles and biofuels.
But with some 20 members states facing legal action for failing to live by current commitments, revising existing standards will not be easy.
Thomas Verheye, a deputy head in the Commission’s environment directorate, says better coordination is needed between Brussels and national and local authorities to ensure that laws are enforced.
“A lot of national authorities have pushed down the responsibility to the regional level, and I’m not entirely sure that they have given the means to the regional authorities to deal with these responsibilities,” Verheye said at the release of the EEA’s 2011 air quality report.
“There is some work to be done on improving that governance chain, and again it’s not about pointing fingers that you’re right, or we’re wrong, I think we all have worked to do and that is going to be the challenge for the coming months.”