300,000 lives at risk if air quality rules delayed, say scientists

A group of environmental scientists have urged the European Commission to reconsider postponing new air quality rules, as continued high levels of pollution will lead to a public health crisis.

In brief: 
  • The European Commission will delay the implementation of the revised EU Air Quality Standards until 2040.
  • This move has been criticised by many environmental scientists as air pollution will fall short of WHO recommendation standards.
  • Experts have urged that delaying compliance until 2040 could lead to over 300,000 premature deaths.  
In detail: 

Dire consequences could arise if the deadlines for achieving new EU air quality objectives are postponed, according to recent comments by a group of health scientists. 

As a collective, the group warned of the significant impact on European health if the European Commission delays implementation of its revised Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD), which was proposed in 2022.

Lund University associate professor, and Policy Committee of the International Society of Environmental Epidemiology chair, Ebba Malmqvist, expressed “dismay” at the decision, and said it will hit the poorest the hardest, as the group’s study indicates “the health costs of this delay to amount to more than 300,000 premature deaths”. 

The 2021 Zero Pollution Action Plan committed the European Commission to updating the outdated AAQD, a crucial legal instrument regulating air pollution across EU Member States. 

Current EU limits for pollutants such as particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) diverge substantially from the 2021 WHO guidelines, underscoring the necessity for EU law to align with scientific evidence.

However, the revised AAQD, proposed in October 2022, does not align with WHO recommendations. The air quality limit values for PM2.5 and NO2 are set at twice the value of the WHO guidelines to be achieved by 2030. 

In a concerning move, the European Parliament voted for WHO guideline alignment by 2035, but the Council endorsed the Commission's original proposal, incorporating mechanisms to delay compliance until 2040.

These mechanisms would allow Member States to delay compliance for reasons such as having a lower GDP than the EU average. It has raised alarms about the potential widening of existing inequalities in air pollution levels, as delays to a roll-out would disproportionately affect less economically strong populations.

Trilogue discussions among the Council, Parliament, and Commission, as of January 2023, were said to have lacked clarity on WHO alignment and potential derogations. 

University of Copenhagen professor, and chair of the European Respiratory Society Environment and Health Committee, Zorana Jovanovic Andersen, criticised the decision, calling it “completely unacceptable”. 

Andersen said: “Children and adults in Eastern European countries have already been breathing the most polluted air in Europe, and suffering from related lung diseases, for far too long. We need fair and ambitious new EU air quality legislation, that values health of all Europeans equally. 

“New Air Quality Directive must provide clear vision and support to speed up, and not delay, much needed air pollution reductions in Eastern Europe, in order to improve health and wellbeing, and achieve clean air for all in Europe, as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, European Environmental Bureau policy manager air and noise, Margherita Tolotto, argued that countries that choose to postpone implementing health rules should be held to public scrutiny.

She said: “Those national governments which are investing all their efforts to secure their right to pollute for an additional 10 years should be transparent about it so that their choices are clear for citizens to see.” 

The collective has urged the EC to reconsider the delays, as well as the current allowed limits across all member states.

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