European air quality laws are being flouted in more than 130 cities across 23 of the 28 EU member states, the European Commission said yesterday (6 February).
Air pollution is the single largest environmental cause of premature death in urban Europe and transport is the main source.
“The Commission remains concerned about the overall pace of progress in achieving the limit values set by EU legislation in member states,” the executive said in a communication published yesterday.
The 2008 Air Quality Directive, now under review, obliges member states to cut exposure to fine particulate matter by an average of 20% by 2020, based on 2010 levels.
The National Emissions Ceiling Directive caps some emissions including particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NOx) at national level. A revised version of the directive is currently under scrutiny by the Council of Ministers and European Parliament.
Across the EU in 2013, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is mostly produced by traffic, caused 68,000 premature deaths. The Dieselgate scandal exposed how Volkswagen had gamed NO2 emissions tests.
Ozone (O3) killed 16,000 and small particulate matter (PM2.5) caused 436,000 deaths in the same year. PM2.5 particles, microscopic specks of dust and soot caused by burning fossil fuels, can enter the lungs and bloodstream.
Over the last two years, the Commission launched legal action against 12 member states for failing to enforce the air quality standards for NO2. Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Spain, France, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal and the UK face possible fines.
Environmental campaigners in Britain won a High Court battle with the British government over its failure to reach European standards. Similar lawsuits are expected across the EU.
The Commission launched more infringement proceedings for PM10, which is larger matter than PM 2.5. Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Slovakia and Slovenia face legal action. Cases were brought to the European Court of Justice against Bulgaria and Poland in 2015.
The executive yesterday launched its Environmental Implementation Review, which it said would improve the observance of EU rules.
Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella said proper implementation of environment legislation could save the EU economy €50 billion every year in health costs and direct costs to the environment.
The executive plans to identify and address problems and address them with countries earlier, before they become urgent.
But Vella stopped short of naming and shaming individual countries.
“There are times when we use the carrot and times when we use the stick. This is one of the times we use the carrot,” he told reporters in Brussels.
The Commission published 28 country reports, which analysed progress on waste management, the circular economy, water quality and protecting nature. The executive plans to discuss the findings with each member state and launch a tool to help countries share expertise.
The executive found that waste prevention remained a challenge for the whole EU. Six countries had failed to limit the landfilling of biodegradable municipal waste.
The Commission withdrew and, a year later in 2015, re-tabled an earlier version of its Circular Economy Package of waste, recycling and landfill laws.
Vella denied that the decision to axe the old suite of laws had delayed better waste management at national level.
He said, “I don’t think there was any delay when we withdrew the Circular Economy Package.
“The fact is we came back with a very much more ambitious package, including an action plan. I don’t think that any work on waste management was interrupted in that period.”
Air pollution has different particulate matter (PM) components – smoke, dirt and dust form coarse particles known as PM10 and metals and toxic exhaust from smelting, vehicle exhaust, power plants and refuse burning forming fine particles called PM2.5.
The 2008 Air Quality Directive aimed at streamlining and tightening EU legislation dealing with pollution and air standards. It is now under review.
The directive obliges member states must cut exposure to fine particulate matter by an average of 20% by 2020, based on 2010 levels.
Many of the policies grow out of a 2005 strategy on air pollution, which sought to cut sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 82%, nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 60%, volatile organic compounds by 51%, ammonia (NH3) by 27%, and primary fine particulates by 59% compared to the levels of 2000.
Health advocates say the cost of cutting emissions through better smokestack scrubbers, cleaner-burning vehicles and a shift to renewable fuels would be more than offset by savings in treating complications of bad air.
Part of the package is the National Emissions Ceiling (NEC) Directive. The original proposal set post-2020 national emissions ceilings (NEC) for six air pollutants, such as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx).