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EU to Set Tough Air Pollution Targets

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The European Commission has recently adopted the EU Zero Action Plan ‘Towards Zero Pollution for Air, Water and Soil’.  The Action Plan is one of the main deliverables of the European Green Deal that aims to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent.  The Commission intends to set targets for reducing premature deaths caused by air pollution by over 55% by 2030.   In 2022 the Commission will propose that the EU’s air quality standards should be aligned with the standards that will be set by the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) standards.

Current EU air quality standards do not match the WHO guidelines for air quality, but the WHO is intending on releasing updated guidelines in mid-2021, and the Commission is keen to ensure that EU air quality standards are aligned with those proposed by WHO.  The new guidelines issued by the WHO in 2021 are likely to limit PM2.5 that has a link with adverse health outcomes.  

The Zero Action Plan is a key component of the Green Deal that aims to ensure that air pollution levels across Europe are reduced through increased monitoring, better reporting, and preventative/remedial actions. 

The Commission has set interim targets in the Zero Action Plan to reduce pollution and: 

  • – reduce EU ecosystems that threaten biodiversity by 25%
  • – reduce pollution levels to a point where they no longer present harm 
  • – improve air quality reducing premature deaths resulting from air pollution by 55%
  • – improve water quality by 50% by reducing the amount of plastic litter in the sea
  • – reduce chemical pesticides and improve soil quality by 50%
  • – reduce micro-plastics in the environment by 30%

Since the Dieselgate scandal when Volkswagon was found to have installed software in vehicles to falsify emissions tests, the Commission has been aggressive on emission targets from vehicle tailpipes.  After Dieselgate the Commission has taken a stringent approach when it comes to the enforcement of real-time monitoring.  From 1 September 2017, new cars have had to pass a Real Driving Emissions (RDE) test, ensuring that new models are not permitted to exceed nitrogen oxide emission limits.  RDE tests have become a key component of the Euro VI/6 emission standards.   

The findings from Dieselgate, that real-world emissions from diesel vehicles could be 4-5 times higher than previously estimated, resulted in calls to address poor air quality in urban areas. The renewed focus on air quality and alignment with the WHO guidelines demonstrates that the Commission is also committed to tackling the problem presented by poor air quality.  It is likely that the Commission will apply the same rigorous levels of testing and monitoring of air quality as they did to car emissions after Dieselgate.  What this means for national governments and businesses is a greater responsibility for monitoring and recording emissions, and increased accountability.  Ultimately, the Commission’s adoption of the Zero Pollution Action Plan will further the campaign for better air quality for Europeans.   

The Commission has indicated that the cost of inaction far outweighs the costs incurred to health, biodiversity, and the economy and better monitoring and reporting measures will positively impact people, especially those in deprived areas who are most impacted by poor air quality.  The Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevicius, has stated that ‘With the Zero Pollution Plan, we will create a healthy living environment for Europeans, contribute to a resilient recovery and boost transition to a clean, circular and climate-neutral economy’. 

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