As the European Parliament gears up for an important vote on air quality next week, campaigners demand that the EU raises the bar for people’s health and the environment, Roberta Arbinolo reports.

Air pollution is Europe’s invisible killer: it is a strong driver of lung and heart conditions, and leads to about 400,000 premature deaths per year across the continent. Breathing polluted air is particularly dangerous for the most vulnerable in society, such as children, pregnant women and the elderly, and compromises our capacity to fight off infections, such as COVID-19. Data from the European Environment Agency show that three quarters of the EU’s urban population breathe air that is dangerous to their health.

Besides its impacts on people’s health, poor air quality also harms nature and ecosystems, threatens food production and affects the climate.

Next week, members of the European Parliament will be called upon to vote in favour of an Air Quality Report that seeks to strengthen some of the EU’s main air quality laws, such as the Ambient Air Quality Directives, which set binding standards to control the concentration of air pollutants.

At the end of 2019, the Commission reiterated the importance of the Directives as a major driver for improving air quality across Europe, and urged governments to step up implementation. Although air quality standards have been key tools for cleaning the air we breathe, pollution limits are still being breached on a continental scale.

Zero tolerance

In line with the European Green Deal and its ambition for zero-pollution, the European Commission is now starting a revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directives, and is expected to present a proposal in the second half of 2022. In this context, next week’s parliamentary vote has a high political and symbolic value. By adopting the Air Quality Report, MEPs can identify priorities to be addressed by the new laws, set the ambition and step up protection for people and nature.

“This is an unmissable opportunity for MEPs to show how much they care about their citizens’ health and the environment. This vote must send a clear signal to the Commission: we need an ambitious revision of EU air quality laws, and bold action to cut pollution at source. EU citizens have high expectations for this revision: don’t let them down” called Margherita Tolotto, Senior Policy Officer for Air and Noise at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Air pollution is, indeed, a major concern for Europeans: according to the 2019 Eurobarometer survey on air quality, over two-thirds of the population think that the EU should propose additional measures to improve air quality, and most of those who have heard of EU air quality standards believe they should be strengthened.

Air pollutants can travel far and do not stop at any border, therefore national governments and local authorities cannot fight it alone. This is why the role EU air quality laws is fundamental. From industrial emissions to domestic heating, transport and farming, the new laws must reduce pollution at its roots and protect people’s right to clean air all over the EU.

Seven priorities

Ahead of the European Parliament’s plenary vote, environmental NGOs have highlighted seven priorities that policymakers should focus on to strengthen EU air quality standards and ensure that citizens can breathe cleaner air.

  1. Fully align EU air quality limit values with the latest World Health Organisation guidelines, expected to be published in the first half of 2021, and ensure that limit values are respected all over EU territory
  2. Establish air quality standards and monitoring requirements for additional key pollutants, such as ammonia, mercury, black carbon and ultra-fine particles
  3. Ensure that fixed measurement systems remain the core element for air quality monitoring, to be complemented by robust modelling based on accurate monitoring data, and reject any attempt to restrict air quality monitoring to densely populated areas only
  4. Ensure that monitoring networks reflect the impact of key air pollution sources, such as highways, roads, harbours, airports, energy and industrial activities, including livestock farming
  5. Enforce air quality legislation, and introduce provisions on access to justice, as well as sanctions and penalties for breaching existing obligations
  6. Ensure that air quality plans include minimum requirements, subject to quality check and implementation assessments
  7. Harmonise and ensure better access to information on air pollution.
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