Catalunya calls for cleaner air at a critical time 

Last month, a coalition of eight European regions, including Catalunya, called for exceptions and delays to the Ambient Air Quality Directives (AAQD) revision process.  

However, on 26 May, the regional government of Catalunya issued a formal letter to both the coalition and the European Commission distancing itself from the group’s statements and highlighted the region’s commitment to complying with the proposed revision of the Directives.

What are the AAQD?  

The AAQD are EU rules to ensure clear air for Europe. The directives set air quality standards for a range of pollutants, including particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide, and require Member States to monitor air quality and take measures to improve it where necessary. They were first adopted in 2008 and have since been revised twice but are now out-dated.  

Air pollution remains the single largest environmental health risk in Europe, according to the European Environment Agency. It is estimated that air pollution is responsible for at least 238,000 premature deaths each year in the European Union and is also 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 wildlife, and degrades ecosystems. 

What is the aim of the Air Quality Initiative of the Regions? 

Emilia Romagna, Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Styria, Madrid, Catalunya and a collection of Dutch provinces united in 2011 under the name Air Quality Initiative of the Regions (AIR). They claim to support the intention to align pollution limit values with the standards set by the World Health Organisation but have argued that the challenge is enormous for these areas – where they exceed current limits due to high population density and industrialisation. 

Late last year, the governments of Madrid and Catalunya signed an initiative with the other regions demanding to be exempt from the new air quality improvements proposed by the European Commission. In early May, in response to the AAQD proposal, the group organised an event at the European Parliament where they continued to call for exemptions for the regions.  

The move has since caused widespread criticism, especially from the Spanish national government which stated the move was “indecent” and put “people’s lives at risk.” 

What has Catalunya done? 

In a surprise turn of events, on 26 May, the government of Catalunya issued a letter to both the European Commission and the AIR coalition. In the letter, the region reiterated its “unswerving commitment to the right to clean air and to ensuring the health of people and safeguarding the environment.”  

Catalunya also stated that is fully committed to complying with the proposed revisions of the AAQD (and their alignment with the WHO guidelines). Even more, it is now considering the possibility of leaving the AIR coalition.  

What happens next?

The letter from the region of Catalunya can provide significant positive momentum at a crucial point.The AAQD is currently being debated by member-states in the Council of the European Union and by decision-makers in the European Parliament. 

Even more important, Spain is preparing itself for both national elections and to assume the Presidency of the Council starting 1 July.  

If the AAQD is successful in the Parliament’s vote, the Presidency of the Council will play a prominent role in the trilogue process – where it is joined by representatives of the European Parliament and the European Commission negotiate the final text. 

Catalunya’s public statements against the AIR coalition shows a commitment to the health of its citizens at a time when Spain is about to assume centre stage for all of Europe’s health.