Sven Giegold

EU Environment Committee votes for cleaner air: We call for tougher limits and faster infringement procedures

Luft Verschmutzung Air pollution

The EU Environment Committee today (Thursday) adopted a strong report on the implementation of EU air quality legislation. A progressive majority of Socialists, Liberals, Greens and the Left (43 votes in favor, 33 against, 3 abstentions) adopted ambitious demands for clean air. This pleasing result was negotiated by the Socialist rapporteur Javi López from Spain with the Liberal Frédérique Ries from Belgium, the Left Group and Greens. I was the lead negotiator for the Greens. The final result reflects the previous attempts of the Christian Democrats, led by German Norbert Lins, and right-wing conservatives to significantly lower the ambition of the report. The Christian Democrats voted against the report by a large majority. 

Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk in Europe. Yet for a long time, there were no clear majorities in the European Parliament’s Environment Committee for better protection of our health and consistent enforcement of EU law. No compromises could be found on some key issues. In particular, the question of whether existing laws should be improved and limit values for pollutants in the air lowered divided the committee. At the core of the issue are stricter limits for particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ammonia and new rules for microplastics and black carbon. Air traffic, industrial plants, factory farming, tyre wear in road traffic and wood heating are particularly responsible for these pollutants. A majority of social democrats, liberals, greens and the left in favour of ambitious goals was opposed by a coalition of Christian democrats, right-wing conservatives and right-wing radicals.

Almost everywhere in Europe the air is worse than EU laws allow. In some cases, EU limit values that have had to be complied with since 2005 are still being broken – but consequences are rare and too slow. Although infringement proceedings are underway against 18 member states, no financial penalties have yet been imposed on any country. But limit values continue to be exceeded every day. The Environment Committee is therefore calling today for faster infringement proceedings.

The European Parliament regularly monitors the implementation of EU law in the Member States and, if necessary, adopts recommendations for better enforcement. These recommendations are not legally binding, but explain the Parliament’s positions with regard to already announced revisions of the EU Ambient Air Quality Directives and the Industrial Emissions Directive. Thus, the report has a good chance of changing European law and its enforcement. The report on air quality will be finally adopted by the plenary of the European Parliament on 24/25 March. There will then certainly be new attempts to weaken the decision now taken in the Environment Committee.

Sven Giegold, negotiator for the Greens/EFA Group, explains:

“The EU Environment Committee votes for clean air. We cannot simply accept 400,000 deaths per year. It is a confession of failure that the air in Europe continues to be so bad. The Commission must finally get serious in the fight against air pollution. New infringement proceedings against many EU countries are long overdue. Where proceedings have already been opened, the Commission must bring them to a quicker conclusion before the European Court of Justice.

The poison in the air must come to an end. The ambition of a Europe with zero pollution is a long way off today. It requires a drastic change of course in industry, transport, and agriculture. Today’s decision lays the foundation for this. Today, the European Parliament is making strong demands to reduce emissions from industry. Exemptions for coal-fired power plants and cement kilns should soon come to an end. New limit values for ultra-fine particles will particularly benefit people living near an airport. Tens of thousands of tonnes of microplastics are produced every year through tyre abrasion in road traffic, completely unregulated. The Environment Committee is calling for new rules to protect us against these pollutants. I am glad that the Environment Committee has followed the recommendations of science today. This sends a strong signal to the EU Commission and Member State governments for clean air and compliance with EU law everywhere.

The clear result of the final vote belies the many attempts by the Conservatives to significantly lower the ambition of the Parliament. It speaks volumes when representatives of the European People’s Party cannot agree to minimal compromises to protect our health. I am pleased that nevertheless an ambitious majority in the EU Environment Committee voted for clean air.”



Link to the compromises adopted:


Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk in Europe. More than 400,000 people die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution in Europe. The main cause is particulate matter pollution, which alone kills around 379,000 people a year. Particulate matter is produced in many industrial processes, in road traffic and in agriculture when ammonia in the air reacts with other pollutants to form dangerous particulate matter. Nitrogen dioxide and ozone are also responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths each year. Nitrogen dioxide is mainly emitted in road traffic.

The EU sets limits for the most dangerous pollutants. But enforcement is woefully inadequate. In a large number of cases, the EU limits are not respected. For example, the European Environment Agency reports that 19% of measuring stations in the EU recorded concentrations above the daily limit for particulate matter. Large parts of the EU’s urban population live in areas with concentrations of pollutants that exceed at least one EU air quality standard.

There are currently 31 infringement proceedings against 18 Member States in connection with the implementation of the Ambient Air Quality Directives, which sets limit values for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, among other things. Some of these infringement proceedings have been pending since 2009. Nevertheless, there are nationwide exceedances of pollutant concentrations in the member states. 

Implementation of the second pillar of the EU air standards is even worse. The National Emissions Ceilings Directive (“NEC” Directive) sets national emission reduction obligations for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia and particulate matter. These targets have been in place since 2010, but the directive has not only been poorly implemented by many countries. The Commission has also not initiated a single infringement procedure since 2010. Three countries have not met their annual ammonia emission targets in any year since 2010. Every year we emit far more ammonia than EU law allows – putting millions of people at risk. Factory farming in industrial agriculture is responsible for more than 90% of all ammonia emissions, which lead to particulate matter that is harmful to health. This particularly affects people in rural regions.

According to the European Environment Agency, preliminary studies show that air pollution may lead to more and more severe COVID-19 cases. Exposure to air pollution is associated with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, which have been identified as risk factors in COVID-19 patients. At the same time, there is preliminary evidence that particulate matter can act as a physical carrier of the virus, accelerating coronavirus transmission.

Core of the controversy

  1. More and faster infringement procedures for better enforcement of EU law

Since the majority of member states only poorly enforce the existing laws, it is up to the Commission, as guardian of the treaties, to conduct infringement proceedings against these member states. The Greens and Liberals have therefore tabled joint amendments with concrete demands to the Commission. Among other things, we demand that the Commission open infringement proceedings against all Member States that have not complied with national emission targets since 2010. Many Member States  will continue to violate the rules for the next ten years without additional measures. The national clean air programmes are woefully inadequate. 15 Member States – will fail to meet the ammonia targets by 2030 and thus continue to produce huge amounts of hazardous particulate matter.  In order to conduct these infringement proceedings as quickly and consistently as possible, we demand that the Commission provide more staff and financial resources. For these amendments, we received support from the social democrats and parts of the left.

Christian Democrats, right-wing populists, right-wing radicals and parts of the left could not support these demands. So they clearly opposed the most basic improvements of the poor enforcement of EU law.

  1.             New and stricter limits for pollutants to better protect the population

Even with full implementation of all EU air quality rules, we would still be exposed to dangerous pollutants. There is currently a huge discrepancy between the maximum levels recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the current EU standards. For sulphur dioxide and particulate matter concentrations, the WHO recommends six and two times lower limits respectively than currently exist in Europe. This failure of the EU to ensure a high level of protection for human health and the environment must be corrected. Socialists, Liberals, Greens and Left therefore demand that the EU limit values be adapted to the WHO recommendations. Scientific findings should be the basis for EU laws. Christian Democrats and right-wing conservatives backed out of a compromise at the last moment. Their position is that there should only be a “closer alignment” with the WHO recommendations. This would mean that it would still be possible to set limit values many times higher than the state of science. The consequence would be that thousands of people would continue to die prematurely from diseases caused by air pollution.

The negotiations on other pollutants that have not yet been regulated in the EU proceeded similarly. These are mainly black carbon, ultra-fine particles and microplastics. Old diesel and wood heating systems in residential buildings are responsible for a large part of the black carbon emissions. Especially in cities, this creates dangers for our health. Black carbon particles pass through the lungs into the blood and from there into other organs. They have even been detected in the brain. Ultra-fine particulates are particularly small particles. They are produced, for example, when aircraft take off and land. They also reach the organs through the blood. Tyre wear in road traffic causes more than 500,000 tonnes of microplastics in the EU every year. A large part of this is dispersed in the air as fine dust.

It has long been the position of the Christian Democrats that the Parliament should not demand to set limit values for these additional pollutants in the future before all existing rules are implemented. This would mean that new pollutants could not be regulated at EU level for the foreseeable future. However, on the initiative of us Greens, the Environment Committee will now ask the Commission to set limit values for black carbon and ultra fine particles based on scientific evidence. The demand for a watch list for substances for which there is not yet enough data for exact limit values (e.g. microplastics) goes back to a Green amendment. The Green amendments were supported by Social Democrats, Liberals and the Left. Thus, the Environment Committee clearly states that more ambition for clean air is needed. In future, not only existing limit values must be complied with – new pollutants will also be regulated to protect our health.

  1.             Industrial emissions: First position of the European Parliament with regard to the revision of the rules for industrial installations

European industry is responsible for large parts of the pollutants in our air. Coal-fired power plants are particularly toxic. 62% of mercury emissions from European industry are caused by coal-fired power plants. Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that damages the nervous system even in the smallest amounts. In addition, 20,000 people die prematurely in Europe every year due to the release of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from coal plants. The Environment Committee therefore not only calls for the phasing out of coal throughout Europe by 2030, we also want to specifically promote industrial plants with the least negative environmental impact in the future.

The Industrial Emissions Directive is to be expanded in the future to cover more industrial sectors. This includes above all industrial agriculture, which iin parts is not yet covered by the Directive.

Many coal-fired power plants, cement plants and more than 10% of iron, steel and glass plants currently benefit from exemptions under the Industrial Emissions Directive. This means that they can emit more pollutants than are actually allowed. A particular example of these exemptions are cement plants that burn waste to produce energy. For these plants, exceptions to the sulphur dioxide limits can currently be allowed without there being an upper end to the emissions. Many cement plants therefore emit many times the permitted sulphur dioxide limits. We want to limit these exemptions in the future and keep them to an absolute minimum.

All these improvements are the result of amendments by the Social Democrats and the Greens. The left and liberals support a compromise that was found, whereas Christian Democrats, conservatives and right-wing radicals voted against these concrete demands to improve air quality.

Our demand for hourly and daily limits for particularly small particulate matter (PM2.5) did not receive the support of the Liberals, Christian Democrats and right-wing conservatives. It was therefore not adopted. Currently, there are only annual average limit values. However, since much higher pollution levels are measured in road traffic, especially at peak times, there should be hourly limit values for particulate matter. Our demands on road traffic, especially on enforcing the rules for diesel cars, also did not find a majority in this report. Six years after the diesel scandal was uncovered, there are still 50 million vehicles on European roads that can emit up to 20 times above the legal limits and contribute to nitrogen dioxide exceedances in more than 130 cities in the EU. We called for the rapid withdrawal and, where possible, retrofitting of non-compliant diesel vehicles, to be financed by the non-compliant vehicle manufacturers. The export of diesel vehicles without retrofitting the non-functioning emission control system should be prevented by the EU Commission.

  1.             Access to justice: Christian Democrats and Conservatives wanted to prevent better rules

In many European countries, citizens find it difficult to claim their right to clean air. Access to justice is made unnecessarily difficult for them. The EU Environment Committee therefore calls on the EU Commission to remedy this situation. We expect the EU Commission to introduce new rules on access to justice in the Member States. Christian Democrats and Conservatives wanted to delete this section completely from the report. By doing so, they would prevent the Parliament from sending a strong signal to all those who are committed to clean air. However, a majority of Social Democrats, Liberals, Greens and Leftists voted in favour of these demands.

We Greens would have liked the Commission to introduce criteria for effective financial sanctions and compensation for pollution damage. This would strengthen the rights of individual citizens and motivate national and local authorities to fully implement the directives. This proposal was not supported by a majority in the Environment Committee.

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