Implementing clean air rules the eternal problem, as EU countries told to raise game

Karmenu Vella, the EU's outgoing environment Commissioner, with Frans Timmermans, who will take over as climate chief on 1 December. [Photo: EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

This article is part of our special report Polluted air: the invisible killer.

Industry, agriculture and transport were asked to decrease air pollution at a high-level EU forum in Slovakia on clean air but the responsible ministers and new Commissioners were absent from the Bratislava event on Wednesday (27 November).

“The problem is pretending that this is an environmental problem. This is the problem of industry, transport, agriculture as well as our taxation system,” outgoing environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella said as he opened the EU Clean Air Forum in Bratislava.

The Slovak capital is hosting the second edition of the Commission-supported and cross-sectoral event on air pollution. The first such forum took place in 2017 in Paris.

According to Slovak Environment Minister László Sólymos, Central and Eastern European countries share “identical problems”: energy poverty linked to burning harmful low-cost fuels; energy intensity of industry; and under-investment in agriculture.

Although Commissioner Vella reassured the international audience air quality is a priority for the incoming EU executive and its president-elect, the forum was marked by the absence of the officials who will guide policy for the next five years.

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Commissioners-elect for climate and environment Frans Timmermans and Virginijus Sinkevičius may only take office on 1 December, but the Dutchman had previously appeared at conferences and the Lithuanian official had met activists in Brussels.

In Bratislava, the event was meant to be opened by Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini but failed to show up. There was no immediate explanation for the no-show or the lack of appearance by Slovak ministers for troublesome sectors like industry, transport and agriculture.

EU not in line with science

In what he called his “very last speech” as Commissioner, Vella praised “solid progress” at the Forum.

“Since the year 2000, across the EU, emissions have fallen by between 10% and 75%, depending on the pollutant. The monitoring network has expanded, and there is a clear downward trend in exceedances,” the Maltese official said.

“Today, far fewer people are exposed to air pollution compared to a decade ago. Premature deaths from air pollution continue to fall,” he added.

But he also pleaded “it would be stupid not to do more”. He referred to the 400,000 premature deaths in the EU linked to air pollution. Vella sees gaps in both the existing EU legislation and its implementation.

“The legislation has been partially, but not fully effective. Air quality challenges continue to persist – and our standards are not fully in line with the recommendations in the best available scientific advice,” admitted the outgoing Commissioner.

Implementation is, according to him, “the eternal problem”. He called on EU countries to “raise their game”. Last year, 22 member states reported an exceedance for at least one pollutant and mostly for several ones.

Since the EU Clean Air Forum in Paris, the Commission has referred nine infringement cases to the EU Court of Justice. With some countries, including Slovakia, “very productive Clean Air Dialogues” have been held.

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Environment ministers from some of the EU’s worst air pollution offenders have been summoned to Brussels for an end-of-month meeting with the European Commission, where they will have to answer some tough questions.

Failing collective action

Under the current EU long-term budget (2014-2020), €2 billion  have been earmarked for air quality action.

Vella explained that thanks to another environmental instrument, the LIFE programme, Poland’s “Integrated Małopolska Project leveraged more than €800 million from an EU contribution of €16 million, improving the quality of life for 20 million citizens in Poland and nearby member states”.

The Commissioner added that clean air demands collective action across countries, government levels and sectors. “They need to do much more,” Vella said in reference to heating, transport, industry and agriculture.

The Slovak Environment Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, too, believe “air pollution doesn’t respect the borders of states and ministries”.

Sólymos praised his government’s measures like new air quality legislation, stricter emissions limits for medium-size sources, a renovation scheme for public buildings and a funding scheme for the replacement of 15 thousand domestic boilers.

Old heating equipment, a persistent problem in the case of 120 thousand households, is by far the main source of air pollution in Slovakia. In bigger cities including Bratislava, however, transport is the biggest polluter.

The new Slovak law approved in 2017 enables cities to declare low-emission zones. But the Minister failed to list the municipalities who have seized the opportunity. “It’s in the hands of cities,” he said.

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End of formalistic approach?

An ardent defender of the climate and a one-time anti-landfill activist, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová cancelled her participation at the last minute due to health troubles. Her speech was delivered by her close aide Juraj Rizman, a former Greenpeace campaigner.

Čaputová’s statement concurred that “we certainly have successes to praise” in the fight for cleaner air in Slovakia. Despite the lower industry emissions and less acidification of the environment from pollutants, “we haven’t achieved our goal: a good air quality”.

Rizman highlighted the 5,000 premature deaths caused by air pollution in Slovakia, 23 times higher than traffic accident fatalities. Together with the 400,000 in the whole of the EU, these are “incredible numbers that we have the duty to decrease”.

The Slovak president called for raising awareness and participation of citizens, ensuring the respect of the EU legislation on particulate matters and taking new measures on local, national and international levels.

But she also decried “plans that were made so they can exist – on the paper” and asked decision-makers to “stop the formalistic approach”.

“This practice has to end,” her aide concluded as the two-day forum opened in Bratislava.

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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