Photo: Global Call for Climate Action / Greg McNevin

EU air quality laws more effective than expected

The health impact of harmful air pollution could be halved by 2030, if governments respect the full range of EU rules on air pollution. That’s the conclusion of a European Commission report published last week.

The Commission’s first ‘Clean Air Outlook’ report looked at new air pollution protections put in place since 2014, including updated rules for coal power stations and other combustion plants, construction machinery and household heating systems. It also analysed the impact of the National Emission Ceilings Directive – which places national caps on five key pollutants.

Margherita Tolotto, Air Quality Policy Officer at the EEB, welcomed the report but warned:

“What matters is that governments respect the EU’s air quality rules. The benefits of cleaner air can only be enjoyed if the Commission makes sure these rules are actually followed.”

The report says that the percentage of the EU population exposed to particulate matter concentrations above WHO guidelines should drop from 88% in 2005 to 13% in 2030.

The report highlights the positive impact of new limits on harmful pollution from coal-fired power plants but warns that increased use of biomass could offset the progress being made.

At the launch of the report EU Commissioner for the Environment, Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, Karmenu Vella highlighted the affordability of improving air quality. He said:

“For only one euro per citizen per year, thousands of premature deaths due to poor air quality could be prevented by 2030.”

Vella also said that more effort was required at the national level and the Commission was keen to highlight EU funding and advice is available to support Member States.

The Juncker Commission recently sent six governments to court for their failure to improve ambient air quality – the concentrations of pollution in towns and cities. Tolotto says it’s essential that this carrot and stick approach continue:

Providing assistance is important but this cannot be the only approach. Air quality laws are essential health protections and government must not be allowed to delay their implementation. This is why the so-called ‘infringement proceedings’ against the toxic bloc of most polluted states is so essential.”

The ‘Clean Air Outlook’ report was produced to help inform Member States that are developing national air pollution reduction plans known as National Air Pollution Control Programmes, or ‘NAPCPs’. All EU governments will need to deliver their plans by 1 April 2019.

Tolotto says that these plans present an important opportunity for concerned citizens and campaign groups to influence national policy:

National governments have an obligation to consult civil society when drafting their air pollution plans. These plans will need to explain how the country will cut pollution and could be used to inform other policy areas. So it’s important that citizens play an active role to make sure that these plans are fit for purpose.”

The report notes that additional progress has been made by countries that have proactively implemented EU rules. It highlights Poland’s early implementation of Ecodesign requirements for solid fuel stoves and boilers that were agreed in 2015 and will only become binding after 2020.

Reducing the environmental impact of domestic heating systems is a key demand of the ‘Unmask My City’ Campaign, which has drawn attention to the problem of air pollution all over the world, including in London, Warsaw and Sofia in the EU.

Poland’s early implementation of the Ecodesign requirements followed Unmask’s demand for new rules for domestic heating to improve air quality. In a petition delivered to the Polish government last year, they highlighted the fact that “the combustion of low-quality fuels in high-emission boilers is the main source of low emission responsible for poor air quality in Poland”.

Coal is one of the low-quality fuels burnt to heat homes in Poland and across central and Eastern Europe. In Poland, coal is responsible for more than half of all particulate pollution.

Weronika Michalak of health and environment group HEAL, which is involved with the Unmask campaign said that Poland was still addicted to coal while suffering from some of the worst air quality in Europe. She said:

“Without moving beyond coal Poland will not achieve a healthy environment and good quality of public health – almost 50,000 people [in Poland] die prematurely every year due to air pollution.”

The Commission is due to produce a follow-up report in 2020 which will include an analysis of the national air pollution control programmes.