The level of pollutants in the air we breathe is a major public health concern. According to recent data from the WHO, around 90% of the world’s population is breathing air with high levels of pollutants, and it’s estimated that it’s contributing to the premature deaths of over 400,000 EU citizens every year.
With this in mind, the European Commission has prioritised improving air quality and has set targets according to the WHO recommendations. In a recent paper, ‘A Europe that protects: Clean air for all’ the Commission has outlined its plans to tackle pollution. It says: “Air pollution is a cause of both chronic and serious diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular problems and lung cancer.”
How is the EU dealing with high levels of air pollutants?
The EU is taking steps to ensure member states are making an active effort to reduce levels of pollution. Earlier in the month, the environment commissioner Karmenu Vella announced that as part of the “infringement procedure”, six EU members were being referred to the ECJ. In accordance with the procedure, which aims to get member states to comply with the regulations, Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, the UK and Romania will have to explain to the court why they are still failing to meet EU targets.
“We have waited for compliance – some of the PM compliance had to be in 2005, the NO2 compliance had to be in 2010, so I think we’ve waited a long time. We cannot possibly wait any longer.” said Vella. She also noted that: “The new figures from the World Health Organisation remind us of the very urgent need to act decisively on air quality.”
Are the current policies effective?
But, despite the EU taking court action to enforce its policies, is it enough to make a difference? According to environmentalists, it’s not. They argue that simply taking countries to court will not tackle the underlying problems, and although the levels set out by the EU would improve pollution levels, they are still lower than the air quality levels set out by the WHO.
Anne Stauffer, Director for strategy and campaigns for The Health and Environment Alliance (Heal), a Brussels-based non-profit lobby group said: “We consider this a half-hearted approach, and think that with this double standard in pursuing air pollution, EU commissioner”
She added: “Vella sends the wrong message to Europe’s citizens, as everyone in the whole of Europe has a right to clean air and to having their health protected. “We hope that the referral to the EU court of justice is a wake-up call for the political leaders of all countries currently failing air quality standards, to prioritise clean air measures now.”
However, commission spokesman Enrico Brivio argued: “Every infringement procedure is assessed on its own merit. Infringements are not just mechanical, automatic procedure. The commission has exchanges with members states on progress and measures taken. Sometimes additional information and data are provided and the situation needs to be re-assessed but details of these exchanges are not public. The fact that a member state is not referred to court it does not mean inaction on the part of the commission. The ultimate goal of the commission is that member states comply with the EU legislation not necessarily to bring them to court.
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