Rotterdam, The Netherlands

All stakeholders committed to tackling air pollution 

The fourth edition of the EU Clean Air Forum, the biennial event organised by the European Commission, took place in Rotterdam on 23-24 November aboard the SS Rotterdam, a famous Dutch cruise liner now converted into a hotel and events space.

This year it once again brought together a wide range of stakeholders from civil society, policy, business and academia for a two-day programme filled with discussions and interactive panels on how to tackle air pollution.

With the ongoing revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD), which sets regulatory standards to improve the air quality across the European Union, the Forum could not be timelier.

Fourth edition of the EU Clean Air Forum

With the event taking place on a former oil-fired steamship, there were naturally several discussions involving maritime air pollution – a first for the event which has not previously focused so much on this sector which contributes significantly to air pollution in Europe.  

A link between air quality and climate and social inequalities was also explored in one of the panels. The session was attended by Leena Ylä-Mononen, a director of the European Environmental Agency – that used the platform of the Clean Air Forum to launch a new report on Europe’s air quality status in 2023. The report clearly found that despite improvements, 97% of Europe’s urban population continues to be exposed to particulate matter (PM) concentrations above the 2021 WHO guideline levels and that air pollution continues to pose a grave health risk in Europe.

Some of the other topics addressed at the forum included the role of urban planning and multimodal transport when fighting air pollution, the link between air quality and job creation, the importance of communicating well about air quality, as well as an interesting intervention on how air pollution was captured in the works of art of impressionist masters such as Claude Monet and J. M. W. Turner. 

Main event a missed opportunity for constructive debate

Arguably the most anticipated session of the Forum was set to focus on the Ambient Air Quality Directives (AAQD) revision and took place on the second day. The panel discussion, which also hosted Faustine Bas-Defossez Director for for Nature, Health and Environment at the EEB, was set to be the first and only public exchange on the ongoing AAQD negotiations with the presence of all three co-legislators – the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council. 

Unfortunately, during that same panel session, a representative of the Council of the EU did not join after having been confirmed as participants that same day. The absence of the Council representative was a missed opportunity for all, especially since a common negotiating position on the AAQD had been found just days prior in the Council. This may have been the first and only opportunity to ask about the Council’s position on the text which currently includes loopholes and derogations for Member States to avoid compliance with stricter air quality standards. 

Despite the absence of the Council representative, civil society reinforced the need for the AAQD to include speedy compliance with new air quality standards without lengthy postponements and highlighted that poverty cannot be used as one of the reasons for a derogation, something which the Council has proposed in its position. In addition to civil society’s calls, Bruno Hervet, CEO of SUEZ Consulting & Vice Executive President Smart Cities, backed an ambitious revision of the AAQD and asked for legislation that would not include loopholes for Member States to delay compliance with limit values.  

Europe waits with bated breath for new air quality laws

Discussions surrounding air quality will no doubt continue and intensify, especially given that the AAQD has now entered the trilogue process where representatives from the Commission, Parliament and Council are working to reach a common agreement.   

The Clean Air Forum showed that it is not only civil society pushing for ambitious legislation, but that there is a wide coalition of stakeholders determined to tackle air pollution. Europeans expect policymakers to deliver on their obligation to protect citizens’ health and the environment by ensuring clean air for all, now.  

*Recordings of the various sessions from the 2023 EU Clean Air Forum are available here. The Forum is hosted every two years, with the next event set for 2025 at a location yet to be named.