‘Major review’ of air-pollution rules to be launched next year
Environmental campaigners have accused the European Commission of dragging its feet over air-quality standards, after commissioners agreed this week that a new strategy should be presented in 2012-13.
On Tuesday (18 January), the college of commissioners debated EU air-quality legislation and agreed to a “major review” of existing rules in 2012-2013, according to a spokesman for Janez Potoc?nik, the European commissioner for the environment. The aim is to have a “thematic strategy on air pollution” in 2012-13 that overlaps with other policy decisions on how to reform Europe’s support to the farming sector, implementing EU climate and energy laws, and the EU’s multiannual budget after 2013.
The EU has been legislating for cleaner air for more than 30 years, but progress in reducing some pollutants has stalled since the late 1990s. One problem area identified by the European Environment Agency is particulate matter – tiny particles in industrial smoke and traffic fumes that can cause asthma, lung cancer and heart disease. The Commission has opened legal proceedings against 20 governments for failing to meet EU standards on PM10 (particles of 10 micrometres).
But the Commission’s environment department and green campaigners are at odds over how to improve the situation.
Campaigners are pressing for an urgent review of one of the main pieces of air-pollution legislation, the national emissions ceilings (NEC) directive, which was meant to be revised in 2008. The revision of this law would be a chance to add standards for PM2.5 to EU law and help member states deal with cross-border air pollution, three groups – the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Transport and Environment and the Health and Environmental Alliance – wrote in a letter sent to all 27 commissioners last week.
But Potoc?nik sees things differently. Any revision of the NEC directive should be done when other policies that cause pollution are also being addressed. “In the college’s opinion a ‘stand-alone’ revision would not fully benefit from synergies with other policy measures in the pipeline,” the commissioner said in a statement on Tuesday, after the debate.
Privately, some Commission sources are sceptical that member states – already poor at implementing air-quality legislation – would back a stronger NEC directive.
Louise Duprez, an air-policy officer at the EEB, suggested that the Commission had got things back to front. “The statement suggests that other policy areas, such as transport, energy, agriculture, are taking precedence over the improvement of our air quality and thus human health and the environment,” she said.
“This seems to underestimate the importance of air-quality standards for driving actions in other policy areas.”
Potoc?nik’s spokesman responded: “It is not a question of not being willing to tackle air quality. It is a question of the best way to do it.
“[Air quality] is a big health problem and a big environmental problem. It needs to be tackled urgently,” he said.
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