Leader or laggard: EU struggles with zero pollution ambition

Leader or laggard: EU struggles with zero pollution ambition

As the EU sets out new measures to reach an ambitious ‘zero pollution’ target by 2050, it finds itself under fire from NGOs saying it is lagging behind and countries warning it is advancing too far.

The plan, presented last year as part of the bloc’s Green Deal ambitions, commits the EU to reducing pollution “to levels that are no longer considered harmful to health and natural ecosystems” by mid-century.

As part of the effort, Brussels unveils new rules on Wednesday aimed at tackling air pollution, cleaning up the way cities deal with sewage and control of water pollutants.

NGOs are paying particular attention to the long-awaited overhaul of EU air quality rules, which they say should be fully in line with stricter World Health Organization guidelines.

An undated draft rules, obtained by POLITICO, suggest the Commission will propose tightening the bloc’s current limits for a number of pollutants, including fine particulates and nitrogen dioxide emissions, but refrain from s align with WHO recommendations.

The current EU limit for fine particles, which has been linked to respiratory disease, is five times higher than the WHO’s updated value for what is considered safe.

Despite falling air pollution levels across the bloc in recent years, polluted air remains the biggest environmental risk factor for human health in Europe and caused more than 300,000 premature deaths in 2019, according to the European Environment Agency.

The EU currently allows far more fine particulate pollution than other high-income countries, including Australia, Switzerland, Canada and the United States, according to Ugo Taddei, head of clean air at the EU. legal charity ClientEarth.

Brussels’ proposal for tougher targets – and the steps it is taking to ensure countries implement those targets – will show ‘whether the EU will be a world leader in tackling air pollution or will be left behind,” he said.

Fall behind

But as the European Commission seeks to set more ambitious targets to tackle pollution – and meet its 2050 commitment – ​​a number of countries may be reluctant to step up their efforts.

Typically, the most vocal opposition has come from governments – mostly in central and eastern Europe – that are failing most dramatically to meet the current guidelines, which were set in 2008.

That will likely be the case again this time around, NGOs fear, especially as countries focus on securing sufficient energy supplies to get through the winter. A number of countries in the region, including Hungary and Poland, are switching to cheaper and dirtier fuels as energy prices rise, adding to their pollution problem.

But the problem goes deeper than a few countries: in an assessment published last month, the Commission found that a majority of EU countries still do not fully comply with EU environmental law. Some 18 countries are currently the subject of infringement proceedings for violating air pollution limits.

Critics say it is the result of Brussels’ failure to ensure its rules are properly enforced domestically.

“It often takes years to process a well-founded complaint, sometimes only to then close it without providing reasons, or sometimes without any justification,” the NGOs Birdlife and the European Environmental Bureau wrote in an assessment published in April.

Margherita Tolotto, head of air quality at the EEB, said the EU executive often uses infringement proceedings as a ‘threat’ and fails to take countries to court when they fail to respond adequately at the first warnings.

This inaction – and the lack of ambition by countries themselves – is slowing progress, NGOs say.

According to the European Environment Agency, the bloc is not on track to meet its interim target of reducing air pollution by more than 55% by 2030. Assuming countries comply fully – which is not a given – the block is on the right track to achieve this goal. goal by 2032.

The EU’s big push to achieve ‘zero pollution’, which echoes the net zero climate target, is an ‘admission of failure’, says University of Reading law professor Chris Hilson . “The last 30 years of EU environmental legislation and policy were already meant to ensure this.”

Local impact

The slow progress has prompted some EU residents to resort to domestic legal action, saying capitals should not wait for Brussels to set new rules.

A group of nine Belgian citizens filed a complaint against regional authorities on Monday, arguing that their failure to set more ambitious air pollution targets in line with the latest WHO recommendations was putting their health at risk.

In a statement, the legal charity ClientEarth said Belgian authorities are “exposing people to levels of air pollution that are up to four times higher than what scientists have deemed acceptable to breathe”.

Belgium should get ahead of the EU and raise its own standards, the plaintiffs argued.

“The Belgian state should not wait for the moment for countries like Hungary and Poland to agree on … stricter levels to measure air pollution,” said Eric, a Brussels-based applicant who has asthma and spoke to POLITICO on the condition of being referred to by his first name.

A group of German residents launched a similar case against Berlin last month.

Climate litigation is on the rise across the bloc, with NGOs increasingly turning to legal action when their advocacy work fails to produce the desired effects. “When we see that advocacy work does not pay… that we are still not listened to, then you go to court,” said Anaïs Berthier, head of ClientEarth’s Brussels office.

Across the bloc, the poorest countries in Eastern and Central Europe are the most affected, as well as regions with strong industry. In the southern Italian coastal town of Taranto, for example, experts say toxic emissions from a steelworks are a key factor behind above-average cancer rates among residents – a problem which, according to them, was compounded by Brussels’ failure to punish the government for its inaction.

Pollution can also have very different effects within the same city: a survey by the Brussels outlet Médor found that residents of low-income Brussels city center face levels of fine particle pollution significantly higher than those living in wealthier, greener neighborhoods – and linked this exposure to poorer health outcomes.

“I think every inhabitant of Brussels has the right to clean air, wherever they live,” said Eric, the Belgian applicant. “Whether it’s a poor neighborhood or a wealthier neighborhood, there should be no difference.”

Louise Guillot contributed reporting.

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