Alongside climate change and biodiversity loss, the pollution crisis is the third major global environmental crisis. However, it is often overlooked, although there is no other area where there are so great direct health effects. One in eight deaths in the EU is caused by pollution. Air pollution alone is now responsible for more than 400,000 premature deaths each year. Chronic stress from noise pollution is just as much a cause of many diseases as toxins in many everyday products. On Wednesday, May 12, 2021, the European Commission is therefore presenting its Zero Pollution Action Plan for Air, Water and Soil as part of the European Green Deal.
By 2050, a toxic-free environment is to be created in which air, water and soil pollution is reduced to a level that is no longer harmful to human health or a danger for natural ecosystems. However, this ambitious vision lacks a solid foundation. Instead of proposing concrete actions to achieve the goal, the Commission invokes the better implementation of laws that have already been adopted and measures previously announced in the European Green Deal or the biodiversity and chemical strategies. By fully implementing all existing rules on air quality, the number of premature deaths is to be reduced by 55% by 2030 compared to 2005. But the Commission appears to have no concrete plan for how today’s poor implementation is to be improved.
With these announcements, the EU Commission falls far short of the demands of the European Parliament in many respects. In the last few weeks we have adopted three ambitious decisions regarding the pollution of air, water and soil. In addition to many important details, we call for, among other things:
- aligning EU air quality standards to the recommendations of the World Health Organization. The Zero Pollution Action Plan only wants to bring air quality standards closer to the recommendations of the World Health Organization, but not to align them completely.
- binding rules for the decontamination of our soils. The Commission only wants to examine the restoration of polluted soil ecosystems.
- the strict implementation of all EU environmental laws in all member states. We expect the EU Commission to promptly and systematically initiate infringement proceedings in the event of violations of EU environmental law. The action plan does not mention infringement procedures and only promises improved cooperation with the member states to enforce EU law.
Sven Giegold, rapporteur for the Greens/EFA group on air quality and the chemical transition, explains:
“The EU Commission’s Zero Pollution Action Plan puts its finger on the weak spots of EU environmental policy. Tens of thousands of deaths could be avoided each year if EU environmental laws were fully implemented by the Member States. However, it does not live up to its name: there are few tangible actions. If an action plan stands or falls with the improved enforcement of EU law, infringement proceedings must be pursued with determination. The reluctance of the Commission to enforce environmental law endangers our health and the credibility of the European Green Deal. New infringement proceedings against Germany and other EU countries are long overdue, for example because of the chemical pollution of our waters and high ammonia emissions. Where proceedings have already been opened, the Commission must bring them to a conclusion in front of the European Court of Justice more quickly.
“The Commission’s action plan is toothless on the crucial issues and the Commission unfortunately falls short of the expectations of the European Parliament. The European Parliament has clearly positioned itself for a cleaner environment in Europe, for faster infringement procedures and for stopping the poisons in our everyday lives.
“The plan clearly shows where the weaknesses of current EU environmental law lie. Even with the announced reduction in premature deaths from air pollution by 55% by 2030, we would still have to mourn almost 300,000 deaths every year. It is an indictment that the air in Europe is still so bad. The Commission must therefore correct its course and follow the demands of the European Parliament. If the zero pollution target is not to fail on day 1, the European air quality standards must be aligned with the recommendations of the World Health Organization. When it comes to the protection and sustainable use of soils, the Commission must show more than just goodwill. The European Parliament has set very specific goals for minimizing soil sealing, preventing land degradation by 2030 and decontaminating polluted sites. These must be implemented by the Commission.”
Martin Häusling, agricultural policy spokesman for the Greens in the European Parliament and member of the Environment Committee, is the responsible Green Rapporteur for the Zero Pollutant Action Plan:
“The naming is ambitious: In a world in which you can find pesticide residues on glaciers in the Alps and in the Arctic, fine particles almost everywhere in the air and endocrine disruptors in everyday products, one would have called the intention to bring a modern industrial society to ‘zero pollution’ extreme eco-activism only years ago.
“But the scientific evidence about the state of our ecosystems and their dwindling biodiversity, about the state of water, air and soil must ultimately have consequences. Now the Commission is presenting the Zero Pollution Action Plan as announced in the Green Deal. But the plan isn’t quite as ambitious as the title suggests. While the zero pollution targets for 2030 are welcome, they are largely based on legally agreed or recently announced targets.
Regulations are already in place to protect water and air. Here, however, the target values for fine particle reduction and water quality in the member states are repeatedly violated. That must be punished more consistently.
“There is a lot of talk in the action plan about the medium of soil. There is still no EU-wide regulation for its protection. And there is a lot going on: manure, pesticides and medicines from animal husbandry put it under massive strain every day, despite supposedly “good professional practice”. Regulations would have to be adapted, because what is still allowed in agricultural policy has long ceased to be good technical practice.
“A consistent implementation of the zero-pollution principle ultimately means a reversal of the entire production chain in our society towards a cradle-to-cradle principle, i.e. pollutant-free circular production. That is ambitious. It is important for the Commission to become more specific in the next few years and to present regulatory proposals for transforming our economy to nature-based solutions. It must not stop with light green rhetoric measures with bombastic titles.”