Karmenu Vella: ‘Facts and science still carry the day’ for clean air champions

European Commissioner Karmenu Vella [Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock]

Thousands of protesters across Europe have taken to the streets over the last few years to demand cleaner air. The European Commission’s environment chief, Karmenu Vella, explains how he has fought for higher standards during his term in office.

Karmenu Vella is the European Commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries.

He responded to questions from EURACTIV’s Sam Morgan.

Last year, the Commission took six countries to court, including France and Germany, for breaking pollution limits. That was after an informal summit where you gave them an opportunity to explain themselves. How important is that process in keeping a healthy dialogue with member states?

It’s important to remember that this isn’t only about legal processes – it’s about human health. As the Commission, our primary concern is with the quality of the air people breathe every day. We are still in a situation where breathing Europe’s air brings premature death to nearly 400,000 people every year, and chronic and serious diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular problems, lung cancer and many more.

We have to act on that, and that means dialogue with the member states. That’s why we started bilateral exchanges on their specific air quality challenges, in an effort to bring all stakeholders to the table for an open and constructive exchange of what more can be done to improve the situation without delay.

It isn’t easy to bring all the relevant sectors together, but that is the only solution: you need measures to reduce pollution by farmers, in the transport and industry sectors, in the way we build houses and plan urban mobility and so on.

If you only have health and environment ministries on your side, change is going to be very slow – you need the ministries of transport, agriculture, industry and the regional policy people, the finance people on board as well. And from that point of view, the dialogues have been very successful.

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The European Commission announced on Thursday (17 May) the launch of legal action against six member states accused of breaking air pollution limits. Three other polluters were put on notice for now.

Does legal action still remain the last resort?

It’s not a step we take lightly. But most governments are unwilling to be perceived as failing to apply European norms, especially when there are such direct threats to human health, so starting legal action often does expedite the issue. And the threat of fines is very real. That is a major incentive to bring about change.

And before we take legal action, we make sure we have a full understanding of the situation, and the extent to which countries have begun to implement measures that are likely to significantly improve the situation.

But if sufficient, timely and effective measures aren’t being taken to keep exceedance periods as short as possible, then the infringement path does become the necessary option.

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The Commission’s landmark climate plan for 2050 suggested that the EU could save €200 billion a year if we go for high ambition, mostly through avoided health costs caused by air pollution. How important is it then to champion these co-benefits?

Environment and climate policies often work together very well – energy efficiency is a good example, as is the fight to reduce black carbon, which has a human health impact as well as an accelerating effect on the melting of Arctic ice. Sometimes there appear to be trade-offs, as in the policy choices on biomass and biofuels, but these challenges can be solved. The important thing is to keep working together on these issues, both domestically and as part of a global framework.

And it isn’t just climate policies that are good for the environment – environment policies are often equally good for the climate as well. Green infrastructure and avoided emissions, fighting deforestation, protecting peatlands, safeguarding our seas and so on all have massive knock-on benefits for the climate as well.

But this isn’t unique to environment and climate – environment policy is always multitasking by nature. Like our policies on the circular economy.

They are good for the environment because they save resources, but they are also excellent news on the social front, as they bring jobs and new business models, and they are good for business as they foster green growth.

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How surprised are you at the debate that sprung up in Germany earlier this year about the validity of air quality standards? You and this Commission have fought tooth and nail to try and enforce them and now people are saying they are too strict. Is this just a blip?

In retrospect, a lot of good came out of this discussion. It was a national issue, fought in the national media, on the basis of inadequate or erroneous information. When the hard evidence was presented once again, the debate melted away. That was very healthy because it showed that facts and science ultimately still carry the day.

It gave us another opportunity to show that Europe’s limit values, which are approved by the governments of all member states and the European Parliament, are based on solid scientific evidence provided by the World Health Organisation, which is the world’s leading authority on health matters. That evidence is backed up by countless scientific papers, which have all been peer-reviewed.

And the sad fact is that we can see the impact of poor air quality all too clearly, in the everyday reality of hundreds of thousands of old and young alike, in cities across Europe, who are struggling with health issues as a result.

The Brief – Pulmonary madness

Everybody enjoys clean air. It invigorates you, draws the pollution out of your lungs and makes you feel alive. We even spend fortunes to escape the city in search of it. But some people in Germany do not seem to be interested in that and even think that air quality standards are protecting our health too much.

Of all the legislation proposed by this Commission and adopted by the other institutions, which do you grade as the most significant in the fight for better air quality?

I am proud that under my mandate the Parliament and Council agreed on our proposal for new national emission reduction targets, which will help significantly reduce the health impact of pollution in the long run. Nevertheless, during my time in office, I have also learnt that the effectiveness of our clean air policy depends on the coherence of the whole. That is the key to long-term success.

The EU has been working for decades to improve air quality by controlling emissions of harmful substances into the atmosphere, improving fuel quality, and integrating environmental protection requirements into various sectors. The aim is to reduce air pollution to levels that minimise harmful effects on human health and the environment over the entire EU. Air pollution travels across national boundaries so coordination is important. EU law leaves the choice of means to comply with the agreed limit values to the member states.

There are three main pillars – first of all, the air quality standards set out in the Ambient Air Quality Directives for ground-level ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, dangerous heavy metals and a number of other pollutants. These standards were to be attained by all member states from – depending on the pollutant – 2005 or 2010 onwards. If the set limit values are exceeded, they are required to adopt air quality plans detailing measures apt to keep the exceedance period as short as possible.

The second pillar is national emission reduction targets set out in the National Emissions Ceiling Directive for major trans-boundary air pollutants like sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter. The national emission reduction targets were revised in 2016 to include new limits that need to be met in 2020 and 2030, and an additional pollutant – fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

And thirdly, there are the emissions standards for pollution sources like from vehicles and ships, energy and industry. There are targeted standards for each of these set out in EU legislation.

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What do you expect from the next Commission in this area?

There is an urgent need to improve air quality in Europe, and that means the full implementation of the standards agreed more than a decade ago. It requires action at all levels and I’m sure the next Commission will continue to support those actions with all the means it has at its disposal.

I think the review of legislation will continue as well. A Fitness Check of the Ambient Air Quality Directives is underway. The findings will be used to inform further reflections on whether these directives continue to provide the appropriate legislative framework to ensure protection from adverse impacts on, and risks to, human health and the environment.

Improving air quality is a long-term challenge for Europe. The only solution is a comprehensive approach across different sectors, from agriculture, transport, energy, to local planning, bringing together all the different actors concerned. Cost-effective solutions to improve air quality exist and are widely available. But they need to be put into practice – as soon as possible.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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