More institutional support for ambitious air quality laws

With the future of Europeans’ health in the balance, support for stronger air quality laws can help to prevent the severe and varied consequences of air pollution.

On 22 February, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) adopted its official position on the revision of the EU Ambient Air Quality Directives (AAQD), calling for more ambitious and effective air quality laws to combat the significant health and environmental impacts of air pollution. 

State of play: Europe’s air quality laws

The AAQD were first adopted in 2008 and have since been revised twice, with the most recent revision taking place in 2015. The, now out-dated, directives set air quality standards for a range of pollutants – including particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide – and requires Member States to monitor air quality and take measures to improve it where necessary. 

In 2019, a fitness check of the AAQD concluded that while they had successful helped reduce air pollution, more ambitious laws are required to keep up with the latest scientific evidence.  

Institutional support for progressive air quality laws

The EESC is an advisory body of the European Union (EU) that represents civil society and promotes participatory democracy. It consists of representatives from various economic and social groups, including employers, employees, farmers, consumers, and environmentalists.  

As an advisory body, the EESC does not have any direct legislative or executive power. Its main role is to provide expert advice and opinions on EU legislation and policy, with a focus on promoting economic and social progress, protecting the environment, and advancing human rights.  

The organisation also performs an important role in fostering dialogue and cooperation between EU institutions and civil society, raising awareness of the EU and its policies among citizens. 

On the issue of the proposed revision of the AAQD, the EESC conducted an internal consultation between members and thematic experts. After the consultation process, the official opinion of the EESC:  

  • recommends aligning EU air quality standards with updated World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines by 2030, setting an enabling framework and strong enforcement mechanisms.  
  • welcomes the approach taken by the Commission to focus on “benefit-to-cost”, but regrets that the ratio, and not the maximum protection of human life and health indicators, is considered the most important indicator in this revision.  
  • is confident that AAQDs limits and rules, enforced with effective sectoral measures, will prompt bold action at national and local levels. 
  • calls for increased funding for citizen science projects on pollution, under the Horizon Europe programme. Educating people on the link between lifestyle, actions, consumption, and pollution levels will result in better-informed and motivated individuals, facilitating long-term behavioural change. 
  • strongly supports compensation for those affected by air pollution and penalties for violators within the Member State. 

The EESC’s recommendations are both ambitious and surprising. Alongside these suggestions the EESC also criticised the Commission’s proposal, pointing out that it would lead to “closer alignment” with the latest WHO Guidelines, rather than “full alignment” – which the EESC states would be the preferred policy option. Besides nitrogen dioxide, the proposal in its current form seeks alignment with the 2005 WHO Guidelines and not the latest guidance, published in September 2021.  

It is rare for a consultative body, such as the EESC, to take such a strong position on contentious issues, but it is a promising sign that what is at stake is not and cannot be underestimated.

What is at stake?

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), air pollution remains the single largest environmental health risk in Europe, responsible for at least 2380,000 premature deaths each year. Beyond premature deaths, air pollution is strongly linked to a range of health problems including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and cognitive decline. 

In addition to the significant human health impacts, air pollution also has a detrimental effect on the environment. It contributes to climate change, damages crops, and degrades ecosystems. 

Despite efforts to tackle air pollution, levels of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide in many European cities still exceed the recommended levels set by the WHO. In fact, a recent report suggests that 96% of the EU urban population experiences levels of fine particulate matter above the WHO’s latest guidelines.  

What happens next?

The AAQD has now passed from the Commission to the European Council and the European Parliament. It is currently being debated within the Parliament’s ENVI committee, which will vote on the proposal on 27 June.  

If the proposal passes in the ENVI committee, it will then face all Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) during the July plenary in Strasbourg.  

There are some concerns that the Commission’s proposal may be diluted during this process. If so then it will fall to MEPs and European Environment Ministers, who care about their citizen’s air quality, to build on the ambition of the proposal – strengthening it in line with the latest scientific evidence. Because anything less, is not enough.