Air pollution levels in Europe ‘simply not acceptable’

Environment commissioner Janez Potočnik launched the EU ‘Year of Air’ 2013 in Brussels yesterday (January 8), describing air pollution in Europe as “simply not acceptable” while outlining his aims for improvements in 2013, writes Michael Holder

Air pollution statistics in Europe are “simply not acceptable” according to the EU environment commissioner Janez Potočnik, who outlined his aims for the EU ‘Year of Air’ 2013 in a speech yesterday (January 9).

At a conference in Brussels organised by the European Environment Bureau (EEB) and the ‘Soot Free for the Climate’ campaign, the commissioner said that despite successes in the last two decades such as the virtual elimination of acid rain, there were “still major challenges to human health from poor air quality”.

Environment commissioner Janez Potočnik (right) & Jeremy Wates, Secretary General of the EEB, launched the EU Year of Air 2013 in Brussels. In his opening speech Mr Potočnik warned that EU air pollution statistics were ‘simply not acceptable’ (© European Union, 2013)

Environment commissioner Janez Potočnik (right) and Jeremy Wates, Secretary General of the EEB, launched the EU Year of Air 2013 in Brussels. In his opening speech, Mr Potočnik warned that EU air pollution statistics were ‘simply not acceptable’ (© European Union, 2013)

He said: “We are still far from our objective to achieve levels of air quality that do not give rise to significant negative impacts on human health and the environment. The figures are simply not acceptable: Our latest analysis estimates 420,000 premature deaths from air pollution in the EU in 2010.”

Outlining his aims for the year, Mr Potočnik said the priorities were to ensure members states’ compliance with existing emissions limits, to invest in clean technologies and strengthen industry regulation at the source of emissions.

He said: “We have to recognise that some of the EU air quality standards that were established in the late nineties are not being respected. And this is in spite of the extra time and flexibility that Member States have had to implement the standards.

He called for member states to “ensure compliance with the current legislation as soon as possible, especially in the sources of pollution, mainly linked to traffic; as well as to strengthen effective enforcement, and reduce the trans-boundary pollution.”

However, he also added that “the prospects for widespread compliance in the next few years are good, based on full implementation of existing policies.”

The commissioner’s speech comes after the results of a survey showed almost 80% of Europeans wanted more EU measures to tackle air pollution in Europe (see story).

Impact assessments

A number of delegates at the conference voiced their frustration over the need for impact assessments for industry before legislation, such as emissions limits on motor vehicles, could be introduced.

At a panel discussion, Jos Dings, director of the NGO Transport & Environment and advisor to the Commission, warned that some sectors in European industry wanted complex impact assessments on air pollution regulations in order to delay their implementation.

He said: “It is very frustrating to have industry keep asking for impact assessments all the time and no action being taken. There is no need for impact assessments to introduce the Euro currency, so why do we need it for emission standards? It is all the time the same issue – we legislate and we don’t deliver.”

However, responding to Mr Dings and comments made by others at the conference, Mr Potočnik defended the need for impact assessments and denied that they simply served to delay or derail the implementation of tighter regulations.

He said: “To be frank, making jokes about impact assessments is not helpful as we need to do them by law. I will agree with you that these impact assessments are more strict than some others, but making jokes will not help. Impact assessments were not necessary by law in the past and this did not work, so I think they will improve things.”

Industry regulation

Mr Potočnik was keen to stress the economic benefits of improving air quality by introducing stricter regulations on the industry at the source of emissions, citing increasingly stringent air legislation in economic powers such as China and the USA.

With regards to source-based regulation in industry, he encouraged businesses to invest in clean air as it “…brings many economic and social benefits as well as environmental ones.”

The commissioner praised the effects of regulation in sectors such as power, road transport and waste management on reducing emissions in the last 20 years, but added that “…not all sectors have contributed to pollution reductions in the past, despite the high cost-effectiveness potential.”

He continued: “Weakened air quality standards, as some call for, we would in fact be a major disservice to our industry. Let’s not kill industry with kindness. Sustaining air quality is therefore not only an environmental objective, but also as an economic opportunity.”

He said in a discussion later: “I think there are actually two voices of business – those that see the industry benefits of improving air quality and those that do not – and one is talking over the other and that is the problem.”

Agricultural regulation ‘frustrating’

One of the sectors Mr Potočnik highlighted for stronger regulations on air pollution was agriculture, but he said that he found dealing with issues in this area “frustrating”.

Speaking after his speech during a panel discussion on cutting air pollution at the source, he said: “Debating the agricultural policy is frustrating me to be honest. You cannot leave the legislation to people who have direct interests in the legislation. I am not saying anything against the farmers here — we have to take their interests on board. But sometimes I am very frustrated and I don’t know what to do — that is life.”

In a speech earlier in the conference, the commissioner had outlined his aims to introduce agricultural regulation on medium-scale combustion and manure spreading after the comprehensive review of Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution reports back with recommendations later this year.

He said: “In some cases, such as medium-scale combustion and manure spreading, the corresponding regulation lies under my responsibility, and I aim to bring forward proposals in the review package or shortly after.”

Janez Potočnik’s speech is available to read in full on the European Commission website.


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