22 member states breached the air quality limits in 2016. Photo: © Shutterstock – Rob Hyrons

EU auditors urge tougher action on air quality

Air pollution rules are still too weak and most EU governments are failing to meet current air quality requirements, says a damning report by EU auditors.

Action by EU governments and the European Commission to protect human health from air pollution has not delivered its expected impact, according to a new report from the European Court of Auditors (ECA). Every year, air pollution causes more than 400,000 premature deaths in the EU and hundreds of billions of euros in health-related external costs.

The Court of Auditors conclude among other things that most member states still do not comply with the binding air quality standards and have failed to take effective action to sufficiently improve air quality. Measurements of air pollution are not always reliable or representative, and Air Quality Plans, which are a key requirement of the Ambient Air Quality Directive, have often not delivered their expected results. Moreover, the Commission has insufficient powers to force governments to take action against air pollution

The EU’s air quality standards were established almost twenty years ago and some of the standards are much weaker than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines and levels suggested by the latest scientific evidence.

In 2016, only six EU member states were compliant with binding air quality limits for the three pollutants: particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2). This means that limits were breached in 22 countries in the most recent year for which data is available.

As of January 2018, the Commission had 16 ongoing infringement proceedings due to excess PM pollution, 13 due to NO2, and one due to SO2, as well as two infringement proceedings regarding air pollution monitoring. After several years of dialogues between non-compliant member states and the Commission, the European Court of Justice eventually ruled against Bulgaria (in April 2017) and Poland (in February 2018) and the Commission in May this year sent a further six governments to the court. The Court of Auditors criticises enforcement action as lengthy and failing to lead to effective change.

The report found worrying differences in air pollution alert systems – the often colour-coded warnings that are supposed to help the general public understand the danger posed by dirty air. For example, the concentration of particulate matter (PM) that the European Environment Agency considers as representing “poor” air is declared as “good” to citizens in Krakow, and “horrible” air in Milan and Brussels is considered “sufficient” in Sofia and Krakow.

The report gives a number of recommendations, including:

  • More effective action by the Commission, for example trying to speed up the infringement procedure and sharing best practices from member states;
  • Updating of the 2008 Ambient Air Quality Directive, e.g. to align the standards with the latest WHO guidance and improving Air Quality Plans and strengthening monitoring requirements;
  • Prioritising air quality in EU policies and mainstreaming air quality into other EU policies, so that action that has a negative impact for air quality should not be supported from the EU budget;
  • Improving information and communication in order to increase public awareness and involve citizens in air quality matters.

The Commission has recently conducted a public consultation as part of a so-called fitness check of the Ambient Air Quality Directive, a process that is due for completion by the end of 2019.

Environmental organisations have called on the EU to do more to enforce existing air quality laws and for national governments to take serious steps to bring air quality into line with the latest WHO recommendations. In September, the EEB, ClientEarth, T&E and AirClim released a position paper “The first ten years of the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive – an essential tool for protecting our health” with ten recommendations for the future of the EU’s air quality laws.

Christer Ågren

The ECA Special Report No. 23/2018 “Air pollution: Our health still insufficiently protected” is available in 23 languages at: https://www.eca.europa.eu/en/Pages/DocItem.aspx?did=46723
NGO position paper: https://www.env-health.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/The-first-ten-year...

Air pollution warning language in different member states varies considerably.


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