Five (worrying) things we just learnt about the EU’s air pollution crisis

A new report by a top EU body has revealed some shocking facts about air pollution in the EU.

The European Court of Auditors – a group of experts tasked with checking on the effectiveness of EU policies – has published a damning report, it reveals a number of worrying facts about European air quality and concludes that significantly more action is needed to tackle Europe’s air pollution crisis.

1. “Poor” air in Brussels is “good” in Krakow

The report found worrying differences in air pollution alert systems – the often colour-coded warnings that are supposed to help us understand the danger posed by dirty air.

A concentration of particulate matter that the European Environment Agency considers as representing “poor” air is declared “safe” to citizens in Krakow, Poland.

The mosaic of city-level systems means that “horrible” air in Milan is considered “sufficient” in Sofia.

A table of PM10 air quality indices from the European Court of Auditors’ report

The Czech city of Ostrava and the Polish city of Krakow are both located in an area that burns a significant amounts of coal, with the nearby Rybnik plant in Poland labelled one of Europe’s ‘Toxic 30’ most harmful.

Air in these cities that would be labelled “very bad” for citizens in Brussels is described as “moderate” and “suitable” in Krakow and Ostrava respectively.

2. Authorities are shutting down monitoring stations

Researchers visited six cities and found that half of them had no more reported data from places where high levels of pollution has previously been detected.

Margherita Tolotto, EEB Air Quality Policy Officer said this “is the air-quality equivalent of removing speeding cameras because they were issuing too many tickets.”

3. Most countries have failed to follow EU law

Only four of the 28 EU member states were compliant with limits for the three pollutants NO2, SO2 and PM in 2016. This means that limits were breached in 24 countries in the most recent year for which data is available.

The European Court of Justice has already ruled against Bulgaria and Poland and the Commission sent a further six governments to court earlier this year, but the report criticises enforcement action as lengthy and failing to lead to effective change.

The auditors urge the Commission to speed-up infringement proceedings against governments that are breeching the limits – something air quality campaigners have called for for years.

4. Not enough is being done to tackle the sources of air pollution

Road traffic, heating homes, farming and industry: air pollution has many sources.

The report highlight the slow progresses made to cut pollution at its source, pointing out some clear inconsistencies between some EU laws and policies and the goal of improving air quality.

For example, the report highlights exceptions to the EU’s Industrial Emissions Directive that will allow major industrial facilities – including heavily-polluting coal-burning power plants – to pollute at much higher rates than would otherwise be allowed.

These exceptions were criticised by the 2016 report Lifting Europe’s Dark Cloud, which suggested they were likely to be contributing to thousands of premature deaths and a host of avoidable sicknesses across Europe. The report revealed that more than half of all coal-fired power plants in Europe are exempt from the usual rules.

Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Croatia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Finland and the United Kingdom have all used a so-called ‘Transitional National Plan’ to grant additional pollution allowances to their dirtiest plants.

5. EU limits still need to be strengthened

The report points out that current limits are 15-20 years old and that health professionals support stricter limits in line with the latest recommendations of the World Health Organisation.

Green groups have called on the EU to do more to enforce existing air quality laws and for national governments to back a strengthening of air quality limit values so that EU rules are in line with the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. The EEB, ClientEarth, T&E and AirClim have released a position paper which, among other recommendations, supports a harmonization of city-level warning systems and tighter rules for locating monitoring stations.