The EU finally has new air pollution rules – now, let’s enforce them

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Rue de al Loi in Brussels is one of Belgium's most polluted streets. [Anna & Michal/Flickr]

EU governments have been too weak on air pollution. Brussels must step in to ensure member states protect their citizens, writes Louise Duprez.

Louise Duprez is Senior Policy Officer at the European Environmental Bureau.

European lawmakers today (23 November) approved new EU-wide air pollution rules committing member states to adopt stricter measures to protect citizens from the deadly effects of polluted air. But its success will depend on the European Commission taking rapid legal action against member states who abuse the flexibility provided in the new rules.

An EEA report published today reminds us of the magnitude of Europe’s air quality problem. In 2013, exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) was responsible for over 430,000 premature deaths in the EU. In 2014, around 85% of the urban EU population was exposed to PM2.5 at levels deemed harmful to health by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Particulate matter can cause or aggravate cardiovascular diseases, asthma and lung cancer.

The updated National Emission Ceilings (NEC) directive sets air pollution limits that are expected to halve the health impact of air pollution by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. But this is far from sufficient: even after full implementation of the directive in 2030, around 250,000 Europeans are still likely to die prematurely because of air pollution every year.

The initial proposal by the Commission was more ambitious and would have saved an extra 12,000 lives each year. But national governments lobbied hard to defend business and farming interests over people’s health, weakening the draft law and succeeding in removing methane completely from further controls.

On top of that, member states introduced a variety of “get-out-of-jail-free” cards to make it easier for them to comply with their targets. For instance, member states can adjust their emissions limits to compensate for spewing out too many noxious gases in one sector, such as recently  happened with emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel cars. Instead of taking immediate action to compensate for possible unforeseen air pollution problems, national governments can, therefore, leave air pollution and related health problems unaddressed.

Because of member states’ reluctance to take air pollution seriously enough, we are left with a half empty policy to clean up our air. But this is not the end of the story. We can still push to get these rules in place as soon as possible, rather than waiting until 2030, and ensure that the Commission enforces them and deals strictly with countries that break the rules at the expense of the health of their citizens. This alone could save thousands of lives.

Citizens have understood this. In countries across Europe, they are suing governments over their failure to protect people from air pollution. This is happening in the UK, Germany and in the Czech Republic, for example, and recently, a group of citizens filed a law  against the Brussels government for failure to tackle and even monitor air pollution at the heart of Europe’s capital.

The Commission can also limit the use of get-out-of-jail cards, such as the adjustment of emissions inventories mentioned above. Member states will be able to make use of them as early as February 2017, when they report on their 2015 emissions. It will be up to the Commission to approve or reject countries’ use of these flexibilities within nine months.

Unless existing rules are properly enforced, national governments will have little impetus to take them seriously. Quick implementation and legal consequences for the lawbreakers is the only way the EU can retain any credibility, both in terms of getting its laws respected and in defending its claims to effectively protect people’s health.