Air quality rules fit for purpose

By: Christer Ågren

After a one and a half year long fitness check process, the European Commission has concluded that its two Ambient Air Quality Directives “have been broadly fit for purpose” despite a failure on the part of many member states to meet legally binding limits on air pollutants.

In its press release, the Commission states that the EU air quality legislation has led to the establishment of high-quality monitoring of air quality, set clear air quality standards, and facilitated the exchange of reliable, objective, comparable information on air quality, including to a wider public.

It recognises however that the legislation has been “less successful in ensuring that sufficient action is taken by member states to meet air quality standards and keep exceedances as short as possible”.

But according to the Commission, the directives have nevertheless “contributed to a downward trend in air pollution and reduced the number and magnitude of exceedances”.

In its Commission Staff Working Document, the Commission notes it currently (i.e. in October 2019) has thirty open infringement procedures against twenty member states for breaching limits on particulate matter (15 cases), nitrogen dioxide (14 cases) and sulphur dioxide (1 case). Two member states are also in breach of the directives’ air quality monitoring requirements. 

The European Court of Auditors has recommended that the Commission accelerates enforcement, as infringement cases have been taking between six and eight years from the initial exceedance to a referral to the EU Court of Justice, and have not yet ensured compliance with the directives.

Moreover, there have been numerous, often successful, proceedings before national courts brought by environmental NGOs demanding the elaboration or implementation of air quality plans, as required by the legislation.

According to the Commission’s analysis, the fitness check shows that:

  • Air pollution continues to be a major health and environmental concern to the citizens of the EU, which underlines the relevance of the Ambient Air Quality Directives;
  • The EU air quality standards have been instrumental in driving a downward trend in exceedances and exposure of populations to exceedances;
  • The current air quality standards are not as ambitious as established scientific advice suggests for several pollutants, especially fine particulate matter (PM₂.₅);
  • Trends in exceedance levels indicate that limit values have been more effective in facilitating downward trends than other types of air quality standards;
  • Enforcement action by the European Commission and by civil society actors in front of national courts has resulted in actionable rulings, and the legislation is enforceable;
  • Additional guidance or implementing acts could help to further harmonise approaches applied to monitoring, information provision, and air quality plans and measures;
  • The successful establishment of an EU-wide e-reporting system based on machine-readable formats now allows for further efficiency gains.

Environmentalist organisations were generally supportive of the Commission’s conclusions.

ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said that the air quality directive and its enforcement, both by the Commission and civil society, have been essential to accelerate action to fight harmful air pollution and protect people’s health across the EU. Nevertheless, he stressed that better implementation is key to addressing the ongoing health crisis, and that the Commission should immediately produce implementing acts to ensure better air quality monitoring, more harmonised modelling and stronger air quality plans.

Margherita Tolotto at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) concluded that even though EU legislation has been the main driver to reduce air pollution over the last decade, much still needs to be done. Stressing the need for coherent policies to deliver clean air, she specifically pointed out the Common Agricultural Policy, and emphasised that full implementation of the National Emissions Ceilings Directive is key to delivering improved air quality.

Anne Stauffer at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) welcomed the Commission’s conclusions, which she said demonstrate that the legally enforceable air quality standards are a key instrument to protect the health of Europeans. She also urged the Commission to present new legislative proposals, including “putting forward a strong and ambitious Zero Pollution Strategy as part of the Green Deal, as well as presenting a timeline for the updating of the current standards to WHO’s health-based recommendations”.

Christer Ågren

Sources: Press releases from the European Commission, HEAL and ClientEarth, 29 November 2019.

The Commission’s full evaluation of the fitness check as well as the evidence collected can be found at:

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