European Commission launches consultation on air quality based on new WHO guidelines
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European Commission launches consultation on air quality based on new WHO guidelines

Smoke rising towards the sky from the chimneys of a paper mill in Sweden, credit: Unsplash/Daniel Moqvist

The Commission launched today a public consultation on the revision of EU rules on air quality, just a day after the WHO had published its global air quality guidelines updating the previous guidelines from 2005.

A Commission spokesperson said at today’s press conference in Brussels that the WHO guidelines will serve as a basis for the revision of EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directives and feed into the consultation.

The consultation is open for feedback for 12 weeks until 16 December 2021 and will also take into account an impact assessment that the Commission is currently preparing. A legislative proposal is expected to be adopted in the second half of 2022.

With this latest announcement, the gap between the WHO legal limits and the actual pollution levels in Brussels is widening, according to a statement from a local NGO that campaigns for cleaner and healthier air in the region. “This should serve as a wake-up call to the government in Brussels – it must live up to its commitment to bring air quality standards in line with WHO guidelines.”

In fact, it is a wake-up call for all EU.  A recent briefing by the European Environment Agency on Europe’s air quality status published this week showed that air pollution continues to be too high in most EU Member States.

In the briefing, the agency says that for most air pollutants, the EU air quality standards are less strict than the WHO 2005 air quality guidelines, implying that the gap has widened to the new guidelines, unless the EU directives will be revised.

According to the European Commission, 400,000 people in the EU die prematurely as a result of air pollution each year. The health and economic costs of air pollution due to lost workdays, healthcare, crop yield loss, and damage to buildings cost an estimated EUR 330 to 940 billion per year in the EU.

The revision of the rules is part of the European Green Deal and aims at contribution to zero pollution from for air, water and soil. The goal is to reduce the number of premature deaths by at least 55% by 2030 by improving air quality.

“We have set a zero-pollution ambition for a non-toxic environment and we want EU’s citizens to breathe clean air. In order to get there, we need to address specific pollutants of concern and as WHO’s just revised guidelines tell us, we need to be even stricter with those,” said Virginijus Sinkevicius the Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries.

WHO guidelines

In his announcement of the new WHO guidelines yesterday, WHO Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, underlined that almost all efforts to improve air quality can enhance climate action, and almost all climate change mitigation efforts can in turn improve air quality, with immediate health benefits.

The guidelines cover some of the most monitored pollutants critical for health, for which evidence on health effects from exposure has advanced the most in the past 15 years. They  focus on so-called classical pollutants, particulate matter (PM₂.₅ and PM₁₀), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO).

When action is taken to reduce these classical pollutants, it also has an impact on other pollutants.

Since the last 2005 global update, there has been a marked increase in the quality and quantity of evidence that shows how air pollution affects different aspects of health, WHO explains. For that reason, and after a systematic review of the accumulated evidence, several of the updated AQG values are now lower than 15 years ago.

The only exception seems to be sulfur dioxide. A WHO spokesperson told the Brussels Times the 24-hour level for sulfur dioxide of 40 µg/m³ was recommended based on a new evaluation of the effects of short-term sulfur dioxide concentrations on all-cause and respiratory mortality provided by twice as many studies as available for the 2005 Guidelines.

Air pollution originates from numerous sources of emission, both natural and anthropogenic (resulting from human activity), according to WHO. The main sources of anthropogenic air pollution can vary geographically, but include the energy sector, the transport sector, domestic cooking and heating, waste dump sites, and industrial activities and agriculture.

The process of combustion is the greatest contributor to air pollution, in particular the inefficient combustion of fossil fuels and biomass to generate energy. WHO declined to estimate the role of diesel vehicles in emitting air pollutants.

In ruling on the implementation of the EU Air Quality Directive on 3 June, the European Court of Justice found that Germany had systematically and persistently exceeded the limit values for nitrogen dioxide emissions for years and had violated EU law. In Belgium, while the number of cars with diesel engines have dropped, more than half of company cars are still diesel driven.

Commenting on the new guidelines, the Greens/EFA in the European Parliament said that, “Multiple Member States, including Germany, repeatedly breach EU rules for better air quality and millions of diesel cars using illegal defeat devices are still on Europe’s streets. The EU needs to look at introducing measures such as the mandatory retrofitting of diesel engines at the expense of the manufacturers.”

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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