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A hole in your ozone plan? Spanish air pollution fight reaches European Parliament

The Spanish government has failed to develop a plan to tackle dangerous ground-level ozone pollution, despite 85% of the population breathing air that threatens their health.

Campaigners from Environmental group Ecologistas en Acción, which has taken a case against their government before the national court, came to Brussels last week to persuade members of the European Parliament to support their fight.

This week Ecologistas published its annual report on ozone pollution, based on data collected between January 1 and September 30, 2018 from 472 official measurement stations throughout the country.

The report reveals the extent of the ozone problem in Spain, where the long hours of sunshine provide the perfect conditions for the formation of ground-level ozone.

In a statement the group said:

“Ozone pollution should be treated as a major health problem. Those worst affected are children, the elderly, pregnant woman and people with chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.”

According to the European Environment Agency, ozone pollution caused 1,600 premature deaths in Spain in 2014 alone.

High up in the stratosphere ozone provides essential protection against solar radiation but at ground level ‘bad ozone’ is a harmful form of pollution.

European Union law says that governments and local authorities must have plans in place to tackle harmful ozone in the air we breathe, but some governments are failing to act.

Ground-level ozone is a ‘secondary pollution’, which means it forms as the result of a reaction between other substances in the air.

This ‘bad ozone’ forms when nitrogen dioxide and hydrocarbons emitted when fossil fuels are burnt react in the presence of solar radiation. The sun’s role in the reaction means that ozone levels peak in the summer months and the pollution is especially problematic in southern European countries.

Breathing in ‘bad ozone’ causes irritation of the eyes and throat, increases the risk of acute respiratory diseases and reduces lung function. In addition to being harmful to human health, it is also toxic to vegetation, damaging forests and reducing crop productivity.

Ecologistas en Acción’s previous calls for the European Commission to intervene have been dismissed, with officials explaining that efforts are being focused on ensuring governments take action to meet EU air quality limits for other pollutants. 

The Commission argues that action to tackle particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions should also lead to reductions in ozone concentrations.

Spain was one of just three of the ‘toxic bloc’ governments that this May avoided being sent to Europe’s top court for failing to tackle air pollution. Unlike Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Romania and Hungary, the Spanish government will not yet need to explain themselves to judges in Luxembourg.

Another cause of ‘bad ozone’ pollution is methane emissions, which were cut out of proposed EU air pollution laws by government ministers after intense lobbying from the agricultural industry.

Environmental groups have called for methane, which is both a harmful air pollutant and a potent greenhouse gas, to be added to EU air pollution protections, including with a cap on national emissions to force governments to act.