Brussels spells out EU air quality goals as part of ‘zero pollution’ plan

Europe to aim to stop creating pollution and, that which is unavoidable should be minimised, controlled and cleaned up, said EU Green Deal chief, Frans Timmermans [Claudio Centonze / EC - Audiovisual Service]

Europe needs to halve premature deaths caused by air pollution by 2030 and bring air quality standards closer to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, according to the European Commission’s zero pollution action plan, announced on Wednesday (12 May).

“The Green Deal aims to build a healthy planet for all. To provide a toxic-free environment for people and planet, we have to act now. This plan will guide our work to get there,” said EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans.

As part of those plans, the European Commission aims “to reduce the health impact of air pollution by more than 55% and protect biodiversity from air pollution in an extra 25% of our ecosystems,” he added.

Air quality caused 415,000 premature deaths across Europe in 2018. While COVID-19 lockdowns have caused air quality to improve, there are still serious concerns about its impact in Europe.

There are currently 31 infringement procedures ongoing in 18 different EU countries because of poor levels of air pollution, according to the European Commission.

However, critics say the plan fails to tackle these national shortcomings, and insist that Europe should fully observe the WHO’s more ambitious standards, in line with calls from the European Parliament.

Status quo

Environmentalists have criticised the European Commission’s target on premature death reduction as a continuation of the status quo.

Indeed, the EU executive stated in January that “the number of premature deaths due to air pollution could be reduced by around 55% in 2030 compared to 2005, if member states implemented all measures agreed and announced under the existing EU legislation regulating sources of air pollution and limiting climate change”.

The idea to “more closely” align European air quality standards with WHO guidelines, due to be revised in June, has also come under criticism for not being new. That objective was indeed already part of the revision of the revision of air quality standards, published in December 2020.

“This is not the ambition level health groups expect to tackle the leading cause of health harm from environmental pollution,” said Anne Stauffer from the Health and Environment Alliance, a green pressure group. “What is urgently needed is full alignment of EU’s legally binding air quality standards with the regularly updated WHO guidelines and the latest science,” she said.

Transport and Environment (T&E), a clean mobility NGO, also criticised the plan for failing to clarify whether the upcoming Euro 7 standards for vehicles and review of ambient air quality rules will be aligned with WHO guidelines.

“Europeans deserve to breathe clean air after decades of living under toxic, illegal levels of pollution. Today’s strategy sets the right goal of a toxic-free environment but is vague on detail,” said Jens Mueller, Jens Mueller, air quality coordinator at T&E.

However, an EU official defended the proposal, saying the European Commission wants to propose policies that are “realistic and based on thorough impact assessments” of the social, economic and environmental costs.

Since the revision of the ambient air quality directive is ongoing and is directly linked to the WHO guideline revision, the Commission needs to make sure its impact assessment reflects the socio-economic perspective as the cost of inaction, the official added.

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Zero pollution by 2050

One of the last pieces of the Green Deal, the action plan presented on Wednesday also sets targets for reducing pollution in water and soil by 2030 with the aim of reaching “zero pollution” by 2050.

It includes targets to tackle plastic pollution, aiming at halving plastic litter in the sea and residual municipal waste by 2030 and cutting microplastics released into the environment by 30%.

The plan also calls for a change in consumption and production towards zero waste without slowing down economic activities.

Pollution is a concern among European citizens, particularly when it comes to health impacts and biodiversity loss.

But while Europe should aim to stop creating pollution, Timmermans said some will remain unavoidable. “By 2050, we want all to live in a toxic-free environment. There will still be some deposits, but they will have reached a level that no longer is harmful. Neither for our health nor for the planet.”

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Pollution levels have dropped by more than 50% in parts of Europe, according to new figures published by the European Environmental Agency (EEA) on Wednesday (25 March), as coronavirus lockdown measures empty city streets of traffic.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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