The European Commission on Wednesday (18 December) unveiled a draft law to tackle air pollution, which every year is linked to 400,000 premature deaths in Europe and costs of tens of billions of euros.
The proposals include new limits on emissions from power plants and industry, as well as measures to make member states comply with existing rules on limiting pollutants associated with asthma, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
So far, many member states are failing to enforce existing EU air quality standards, even though the rules are less rigorous than those set by the World Health Organization.
"Air pollution is still an invisible killer and it prevents many people from living a fully active life," Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik said in a statement.
Environmental campaigners say the European Commission, the EU executive, is not being bold enough in tackling a problem linked to more untimely deaths than road accidents, as well as countless sick days and impaired quality of life.
The Commission has said the eventual aim is to raise standards to WHO levels, but it has to balance costs to industry with benefits in fragile economic times.
It puts the direct costs to society, including damage to crops and buildings, from air pollution at around €23 billion ($31.6 billion) per year.
The health benefits alone of the proposals will save society €40 billion per year, 12 times the cost of pollution abatement, which is expected to reach €3.4 billion per year in 2030, the Commission said.
The Commission calculates that adopting its proposed measures would reduce the annual death toll from pollution-related disease by 58,000 by 2030, as well as protecting fragile ecosystems and boosting the clean-technology industry.
New law plus enforcement
The measures include revised legal limits on how much each member state can emit of a list of major pollutants, as well as a new law to cut pollution from medium-sized combustion installations, such as power plants.
Alan Andrews, a Brussels-based lawyer at environmental law firm Client Earth, welcomed the inclusion of medium-sized plants, which previously escaped requirements limited to larger installations.
He also said the inclusion of planet-warming methane gas and fine dust, known as PM 2.5 (particulate matter), associated with cardiovascular disease and lung cancer was progress.
Other pollutants from traffic, industry and agriculture already covered by EU law are larger particulates, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide, ammonia and volatile organic compounds, which contribute to ground ozone formation.
The proposals follow a review of existing law, which has cut concentrations of some harmful pollutants. EU air quality is relatively good compared with Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa, WHO data shows.
But increased traffic volumes and a rise in wood burning by households as a cheap alternative to gas mean some types of harmful pollution are receding more slowly.
Levels of particulate matter, especially the more penetrating and therefore more dangerous PM 2.5, as well as the larger PM 10 are one of the biggest health risks.
But the tighter proposed limits on PM will pose problems for EU governments, many of which have struggled to meet the existing caps. Up to a third of Europeans are exposed to dangerous levels of PM pollution, official figures show.
According to the Commission and the European Environment Agency, which provides guidance to EU policymakers, 400,000 people in Europe die prematurely each year due to diseases linked to air pollution.
The proposal will now head to the European Parliament and Council for debate. The Italian government has expressed an interest in making the proposals a priority when it takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council in the second half of next year.
This means that the proposals could become law before the end of 2014, if parliamentarians and European ministers reach an agreement quickly, Commission Environment Spokesperson Joe Hennon told EURACTIV.