Every Breath You Take (May Slowly Kill You). EU’s Big Air Pollution Problem

By: Sara Skejo, CASE Analyst

Nine European Union Member States — the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom — could face legal action for failing to make progress on reducing air pollution. All the countries were invited to submit proposals on how they expect to improve air quality on their territories and meet EU standards by the EU Commissioner for Environment Karmenu Vella during the Air Quality Ministerial Summit held in Brussels on 30th of January.

The suggested measures, including Germany’s suggestion to make public transport free of charge in highly polluted cities and the Italian plan to spend EUR 6.5 billion on air quality improvements, will now be discussed by the European Commission (EC). The final decision whether or not to launch legal action against the above mentioned Member States will be made by mid-March 2018. All the nine countries have already received a Reasoned Opinion and are currently in the last stage of the infringement procedure before their cases are taken to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

A man puts a white mask on a dog during a protest against air pollution in Pristina Jan 31, 2018. Source: REUTERS/Hazir Reka

Similar action has already been taken against two countries, Bulgaria and Poland, which were sent to the court for breaking EU laws on air quality standards. In April 2017, the court ruled that Bulgaria failed to meet the limits and improve its air quality. However, no financial penalties against the country were prescribed at that time. On February 22nd, the ECJ will rule on the case of Poland, home to 33 of the continent’s 50 most polluted cities. Despite the EU’s requirements to cut carbon emissions, the country continues to use the coal as the main energy source and on October 2017 filed a counter-case to the ECJ against new regulations aimed at reducing pollution in the region.

However, it is not just Poland, Bulgaria, and the other nine countries under the procedure that are in dire straits due to their levels of air pollution. A staggering 23 out of 28 EU Member States are continuously exceeding their air quality limits. This is despite the EU’s main policy instruments on air pollution, Ambient Air Quality Directives and the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive, setting 2020 and 2030 national emission reduction commitments for five main air pollutants and requiring Member States to draw up National Air Pollution Control Programmes. To date, the EC launched legal action against 13 Member States in an effort to enforce the air quality standards for NO2, and it runs cases concerning PM10 particles against 16 countries. To ensure compliance with the EU environmental laws and improve environmental governance, the EC has additionally recently adopted a nine-point Compliance Assurance Action Plan, aimed at helping all industrial operators, public utilities, farmers, and individuals to efficiently follow the existing rules. On the top of that, the EC is also setting up a high-level expert group, known as the Environmental Compliance and Governance Forum, to assist in implementing all the above listed actions.

The stakes are high. Should the Member States implement environment legislation the way they are obliged to, the EU could save EUR 50 billion annually in health costs and costs to the environment. The latest European Environment Agency air quality data showed that air pollution produces significant market and non-market costs as it effects crops, forests yields, and ecosystems. Moreover, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecasts that market costs, including reduced labor productivity and additional health expenditure, will by 2060 increase to reach about 2% of the EU-wide gross domestic product (GDP), potentially creating stagnation in economic growth. In 2015, 80% of the total costs of air pollution in Europe were related to non-market costs, as the Commission estimates that more than 400,000 people die every year of air pollution and many more need to be treated against diseases related to poor air quality.

According to Anton Lazarus from the green lobby group European Environmental Bureau, air pollution has become a political issue for the Commission in face of the upcoming May 2019 elections to the European Parliament, and the ministerial summit was more about politicizing the issue than reaching a solution to the problem. Be that as it may, poor air quality has been at the bottom of the political agenda for way too long and, as the number of ECJ cases shows, Member States took EC’s air quality recommendations lightly. Perhaps fear of not being re-elected by angry citizens tired of breathing in polluted air is exactly what the EU bureaucrats needed.

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