The World Health Organization is shortly expected to publish revised guidelines for the main hazardous air pollutants. These will be of major importance for the forthcoming revision of the EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directive – a revision proposal is scheduled to be presented by the Commission next year.
On 24 March the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the implementation of the air quality directive, calling on the Commission to align the EU’s air pollutant limit values with the revised WHO guidelines, and to establish air quality standards and monitoring requirements for additional hazardous air pollutants, such as ultrafine particles, black carbon, ammonia and mercury.
On 12 May, the Commission presented its Zero Pollution Action Plan (ZPAP). Environmentalists had high hopes that this would include a clear plan for how the EU intends to tackle air pollution once and for all. For example, that it should have a clearly expressed aim to reduce to zero any premature deaths and diseases that are caused by anthropogenic air pollution and to ensure that critical loads and levels for protecting ecosystems and biodiversity are no longer exceeded.
Sadly, the ZPAP falls short both on new actions and stricter objectives, and instead mainly lists existing legal obligations and ongoing or already foreseen reviews of EU laws.
Achieving clean air is dependent on updated and new regulations to cut emissions at source. Work is already ongoing on revising the Industrial Emissions Directive and the emission standards for road vehicles, with proposals expected before the end of this year.
But much more needs to be done, especially in some important laggard source-sectors, such as agriculture, domestic solid-fuel burning, and international shipping.
Air pollution can be carried by winds over hundreds and even thousands of kilometres within a few days. Health-damaging levels of PM2.5 in cities such as Berlin or Copenhagen may be caused by precursor pollutant emissions in neighbouring countries, and excessive levels of ozone in Europe may originate from emissions in other continents.
Cross-border airborne pollution was the reason for establishing the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) in 1979. After having agreed and implemented a series of measures over time, the Convention is now busy reviewing its 2012 Gothenburg Protocol, aiming to revise and strengthen it within the next few years.
Forty years ago, in May 1981, four Swedish environmentalist organisations invited their counterparts in other countries to join them in a European Conference on Acid Rain in Gothenburg. The meeting focused on providing information on the harmful impacts of air pollution, especially acidification, and on finding ways in which environmentalists around Europe could cooperate to cut air pollutant emissions.
One outcome of this conference was the formation of the Swedish NGO Secretariat on Acid Rain (later renamed AirClim) in January 1982, and the start of Acid News. I was personally engaged in establishing the secretariat and served as acting editor of Acid News for nearly 30 years, up to 2012, and it is now time for me to retire.
Looking back, big changes have taken place over these forty years (see pages 13–16), including drastic cuts in emissions of some air pollutants, especially of the main acidifying pollutant sulphur dioxide, which has been slashed by more than 90 per cent in Europe.
But much remains to be done. Air pollution still kills around 800,000 people every year in Europe, and nearly 9 million people worldwide. So it is imperative that all the actions listed above, and many more, will actually deliver.