The 12 regions in seven countries – including Germany’s Ruhr Valley and some of Italy’s wealthiest areas - are home to concentrated industrial operations. The areas collectively represent 22% of the EU’s GDP and 18% of the EU population.
The Air-Quality Initiative of the Regions was launched in advance of anticipated revisions to the EU’s Air Quality Directive. At a recent meeting in Brussels, regional leaders mapped out plans to cooperate on pollution reduction.
They also urged the EU executive to take into account their emissions-fighting efforts when considering enforcement action.
But officials deny that the goal is to lobby for weakening EU air quality standards.
“We simply want to have the revised directive to be more flexible in terms of recognising the specific features of some territories of the European Union and to recognise the efforts made by regional authorities to … try to balance development and sustainability,” said Remo Tavernari of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna EU office.
“But we didn’t ask and we are not going to ask for the limits of the directive to be pushed down,” Tavernari, the office’s senior policy officer for energy and environment, told EurActiv. “This is not our aim.”
Po River collaboration
The initiative stems from interregional efforts in Italy’s Po River Valley to improve air quality in an area that is both rich in agriculture and home to some of Italy’s leading manufacturers. Regional authorities in Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and United Kingdom are also part of the initiative.
Besides their industrial output, they share similar geographic features – hills and river valleys that trap pollution in veils of smog.
Regional leaders contend they are trying to find a balance between economics and a better environment.
“All these regions have improved the quality of air, but still we have to take into consideration that the European Union is also asking us to improve growth and development of these regions,” Tavernari said.
Leaders of the 12 regions are urging the Commission to recognise their emission-reduction efforts before going to court over violations, and is recommending and integration of EU pollution and air standards – something that Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik’s is expected to push in the months ahead.
The EU executive has filed infringement proceedings against some 20 countries over noncompliance with the 2008 Air Quality Directive. Fines or other sanctions may filter down to the local government, depending on the country’s federal structure.
Despite an economic slowdown across much of Europe, studies show that levels of some pollutants – including nitrogen oxide (NO2), ozone and particulate matter - are on the rise after a decade of decline. The European Environment Agency reported recently that more than 95% of city residents in the EU regularly breathe ozone levels that exceed World Health Organisation recommended levels.
The air-quality initiative comprises the regions of Baden-Württemberg, Hessen and North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany; Catalonia in Spain; Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont and Vento in Italy; Randstad in the Netherlands; Flanders in Belgium; Steiermark in Austria; and Greater London in the UK.