The Council of the EU’s position would continue to expose the poorest to toxic air for years to come.
Earlier this month, the Council of the European Union adopted its negotiating position on the proposed revision of EU ambient air-quality directives. It deals a significant blow to co-legislators’ efforts aimed at achieving air quality for all in Europe.
The council’s position ensures that the legislative process will continue but it ignores the science on the impacts of air pollution and the analysis of its economic burden. It would allow for huge derogations and possibilities for member states to postpone the deadline for compliance with air-quality standards—from 2030 to 2040 and beyond. This and other worrying elements would completely undermine the legal framework.
In September, the European Parliament had voted for a more ambitious proposal, which would see Europe’s air-quality standards aligned by 2035 with the recommendations set by the World Health Organization. The parliament also requested clear rules on implementation, covering monitoring, modelling and air-quality plans. Parliamentarians voted too to strengthen citizens’ rights to effective remedies, via access to justice and compensation—elements which the council remarkably does not like.
Air pollution is responsible for around 300,000 premature deaths annually in Europe, making it the biggest environmental threat to our health. It contributes to a wide range of health issues, including heart attacks, strokes, respiratory problems, diabetes, dementia, delayed cognitive development in children and lung cancer—in addition to its impacts on ecosystems, including vegetation and crops.
The estimated annual health-related economic costs stemming from air pollution are as much as €940 billion across the EU. In urban areas, 96 per cent of inhabitants are exposed to dangerous levels of fine particular matter (PM2.5) and other deadly air pollutants.
Health impacts of air pollution are also exacerbated by worsening climate conditions. The World Meteorological Organization revealed at the turn of the year that 2022’s summer was the hottest on record in Europe and that the sustained heatwave led to increased concentrations of PM and ground-level ozone. If extreme summers are to become the norm, more health problems and premature deaths will be inevitable, should action not be taken now.
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A 2022 survey by the European Commission showed that most Europeans deem respiratory diseases (89 per cent), asthma (88 per cent) and cardiovascular diseases serious problems in their countries resulting from air pollution. While most respondents (73 per cent) were not aware of EU air-quality standards, a large majority (67 per cent) of those who were believed these should be strengthened.
A Eurobarometer survey conducted this summer showed that ‘citizens are aware of the EU’s impact on their lives’. Ahead of the European elections in June, public health and action against climate change were two of the top three priorities EU citizens wanted their government representatives to tackle, alongside fighting poverty and exclusion—above supporting the economy and creating new jobs.
Not all equal
It is especially concerning that national governments have in their position agreed on the possibility to plead poverty to seek postponement of the obligation to attain the new air-quality objectives, from 2030 to 2040. The justification would be a ‘high share of low-income households’ in a given air-quality zone where the member state’s gross domestic product was below the EU average.
This implies policy-makers are fine with letting low-income communities breathe polluted air for longer. Households suffering from poverty are more likely to be affected by chronic pollution in their neighbourhood and its corrosive effects, while simultaneously often lacking access to adequate healthcare. The council is sending a clear message: not all are equal when it comes to their right to live in a healthy environment and to breathe clean air.
The commitment of the Spanish presidency has ensured a negotiating position within its mandate running to the year end. This will afford more time to the ‘trilogue’ process, in which the commission, council and parliament attempt to reach a compromise starting from their three different positions. It is incumbent on the commission and the parliament to ensure in those negotiations that ambitious air-quality legislation is achieved and that loopholes—including those that would still exclude millions of lower-income Europeans from breathing clean air—are removed.