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

Speaker of the German Green Delegation

Europe’s air is getting cleaner! European Parliament votes for stricter limit values

Luft Verschmutzung Air pollution

Dear friends, dear interested,

 

A great success for our health and environment! The European Parliament adopted yesterday evening (March 25, 2021) a strong report on the implementation of EU rules on air quality. After months of work, it is a deeply green report full of green proposals! We find: Europe’s clean air laws are too weak. And even laws that have been in place for decades are not being properly implemented by national governments. Every year, 400,000 Europeans die prematurely from poor air quality. A progressive majority of Social Democrats, Liberals, Greens and the Left now want to put an end to this. After 16 years, we want to finally implement the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) for significantly stricter limits on particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants. This would prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths each year. We voted for clean air and for a right to environmental health for all citizens based on the latest scientific findings.

 

It was the conservative members of parliament, led by Norbert Lins (German MEP, CDU), supported by eurosceptics and the far right, who tried to put the brakes on stricter limits. But they did not get away with it! The majority of the European Parliament is behind stricter rules for better air quality!

 

In the final vote, 425 MEPs voted in favor of the strong report, with 109 votes against and 153 abstentions. The approval came mainly from social democrats, liberals, greens and leftists. The abstentions came from the Christian Democrats. The votes against were cast by anti-Europeans and right-wing extremists.

 

Europe’s air is plagued by two major problems, which we are addressing with the report adopted yesterday:

  1. Our rules are insufficient and outdated. The WHO recommends much stricter limits for particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants.
  2. Existing laws are poorly implemented. More than 10 years after limit values came into force, the air in many places is still worse than permitted!

 

Alignment of EU air quality standards with WHO recommendations

 

We call on the EU Commission to submit a revision of the EU Air Quality Directive to align the current EU limit values for air pollutants with the maximum values recommended by the WHO. In the future, we want to review these limits regularly so that EU laws are based on the latest scientific findings. After all, today’s EU standards are 15 to 20 years old and in some cases more than six times higher than currently recommended by the WHO.

In essence, a progressive majority in the European Parliament is calling for stricter limits on particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone. We also want new limits for ultrafine particulate matter and black carbon, for which there are none at present. These demands gathered broad support from social democrats, liberals, greens and leftists. We Greens also advocated for new limits for ammonia and mercury. In the end, we were successful – new limits are also to be set for these pollutants. In the future, microplastics are to be placed on a watch list for problematic substances for which there is not yet sufficient scientific knowledge, on our Green initiative. Air and road traffic, industrial plants, factory farming in agriculture, and wood heating are particularly responsible for these pollutants.

 

More and more effective infringement proceedings

 

Unfortunately, EU environmental laws are too often not respected today. There are currently 31 infringement proceedings ongoing against 18 Member States in relation to the implementation of the EU Ambient Air Quality Directives. Some of these proceedings began as early as 2009, but so far only one Member State has been ordered to pay fines – all others continue to get away with it.

Today, infringement proceedings are often too lengthy and ineffective. It was therefore one of our Green priorities to improve the enforcement of EU environmental law. Together with the Liberals, we fought for more staff in the Commission to prosecute infringements and faster legal action against member states. In particular, the demand for the rapid opening of infringement proceedings on ammonia emissions, which are far too high, can be traced back to our Green initiative. We are calling on the Commission to take action, because in several member states emissions have been above the permitted maximum levels for ten years with impunity. In doing so, we are sending a strong signal to the Commission and member state governments for clean air and compliance with EU law everywhere. New infringement proceedings would affect industrial farming, because member states have been releasing more ammonia into the air than EU law allows. Factory farming and fertilization in industrial agriculture are 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.

 

Good chances of implementing our demands

 

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.

 

A strong report – thanks to civil society

 

This success also belongs to the many citizens and civil society organisations who campaign for clean air every day. This constant pressure from the public has made today’s strong result possible. I would especially like to thank all those who have supported me during the negotiations of this report. And to all the citizens and civil society who are fighting for their right to clean air in dozens of court cases – even though it is up to the Commission and national governments to ensure healthy air. Without the pressure from the public and the many lawsuits in national courts, the air would still be dramatically worse in many places.

 

I am taking the momentum of this report with me. Because it can only be the beginning. This hard-won success must now be translated into action. That is why I will of course continue to work on this issue and look forward to your support.

 

With pleased green greetings,

 

Sven Giegold

 

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The report adopted with only minor amendments: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2021-0037_EN.pdf

 

Background

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.

Some of the key details of the report 

  • 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.

  •             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 European Parliament 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 European Parliament 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 European Parliament 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 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 European Parliament 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.