Sven Giegold
Member of the European Parliament – Greens/EFA Group

Speaker of the German Green Delegation

Air quality: WHO recommends stricter limit values for air pollutants – EU needs to catch up

Luft Verschmutzung Air pollution

Dear friends, dear interested parties,

today is a good day for clean air! The World Health Organization (WHO) presented its updated air quality recommendations today, September 22nd. This is good news for our health, because air pollution is the greatest environmental health risk in Europe! Today the WHO recommends significantly lowering the limit values ​​for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. This would avoid tens of thousands of premature deaths each year in Europe. Particulate matter alone is responsible for nearly 400,000 premature deaths in the EU each year. In Germany there are 70,000 per year. The WHO guidelines on air quality provide the scientific basis for legislation around the world.

Right to clean air across Europe
We all have a right to clean air. The WHO scientists have expressly confirmed this today. Particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide and many other pollutants are only acceptable in very small amounts in the air. The more science advances, the clearer the severe effects on cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, obesity, diabetes and many other diseases become. For this reason, a whole series of recommended limit values ​​have been drastically reduced today compared to the last WHO recommendations from 2005.

The WHO recommends significantly stricter maximum values ​​for nitrogen dioxide, which is mainly produced when diesel vehicles are used in road traffic, and particulate matter, which is produced, among other things, in industrial factory farming. The maximum recommended level for nitrogen dioxide has been reduced from 40 micrograms per cubic meter to 10 micrograms. This value has not been reached in any city in Europe in recent years. Worse: In many cities, even the current value of 40 micrograms is not achieved. Clean air in our cities can only be created with a real change in mobility.

The World Health Organization recommends today to significantly reduce the maximum value of particularly small particulate matter (so-called PM2.5). This means that the current limit value in the EU is five times higher than recommended by the WHO!

EU laws must be adapted to the latest science
Today’s EU air quality standards are 15 to 20 years old. None of the relevant European limit values ​​for particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, ozone or sulfur dioxide comply with the guidelines of the WHO. Millions of Europeans are exposed to a major health risk every day! The European Parliament has already given the direction for new legislation. In March we decided on an ambitious text on air quality in Europe. In it we unequivocally call on the EU Commission to fully align the limit values ​​for pollutants with the updated scientific guidelines of the WHO through changes to the Ambient Air Quality Directives. A large majority in the European Parliament voted for this clear goal, although the conservatives tried to block this call for stricter limit values. As the green shadow rapporteur, I was closely involved in the drafting of this report.

The EU Commission has shown itself to be work-shy in this crucial question: It only wants to adapt the EU limit values ​​“more closely” to the recommendations of the World Health Organization. This would mean that millions of Europeans would continue to be exposed to bad air. A legislative proposal from the EU Commission is expected in the coming year.

Car and agricultural lobby against it
The strictly scientific recommendations of the WHO are opposed by powerful lobby interests. The auto industry and industrial agriculture in particular – two of the dirtiest industries – are fighting with all their might against better rules for cleaner air. They get support from many Christian Democrats and the right wing. The WHO experts clearly contradict this today. The air must become cleaner everywhere to protect our health.

The European Court of Justice has already condemned Member States for bad air
Part of the truth is that almost everywhere the air is worse than current EU laws allow. In some cases, EU limit values ​​are being broken that have had to be complied with since 2005 – but the consequences are rare and too slow. Despite infringement proceedings against 18 Member States, limit values ​​continue to be exceeded every day. For example, It was only in June of this year that the European Court of Justice condemned the German government for having exceeded the maximum permitted level in dozens of German cities since 2010.

Six years after the diesel scandal was discovered, there are still 50 million vehicles on European roads that can emit up to 20 times above the legal limit values ​​and produce nitrogen dioxide
– and thereby contribute to excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide in more than 130 cities in the EU.

Poison in the air must come to an end

The new guidelines of the World Health Organization are the next step on the way to better air in Europe. The precautionary principle, anchored in the EU treaties, obliges the EU Commission and member states to fully implement the recommendations. The new scientific basis must now lead to an ambitious European law for clean air. Europe’s zero pollution ambition is a long way off. A drastic change in direction is required in industry, transport and agriculture. We Greens will continue to fight in the European Parliament for clean air and for a right to environmental health for all citizens based on the latest science.

With green European greetings
Sven Giegold

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More information on the WHO recommendations: https://www.euro.who.int/en/media-centre/sections/press-releases/2021/new-who-global-air-quality-guidelines-aim-to-save-millions-of-lives-from-air-pollution

More information on the report of the European Parliament: https://sven-giegold.de/en/europes-air-getting-cleaner/


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