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EU countries demand 10 extra years to meet air pollution targets

EU countries demand 10 extra years to meet air pollution targets

by host

EU countries are insisting on a decade-long delay in meeting new air pollution targets, pumping the brakes in the EU’s fight against dirty air.

As part of its pledge to achieve zero pollution by 2050, the EU is introducing tougher air pollution targets to address a growing public health issue that caused 253,000 premature deaths across the bloc in 2021.

But EU countries are pushing back, insisting they may need up to 10 extra years to achieve the goals.

That’s putting them at odds with the European Parliament, which argues that countries need to speed up, not slow down, efforts to slash levels of toxic air pollution.

The row over the higher targets comes as governments across the bloc face a growing number of court cases over failures to curb pollution — and growing pushback against policies aimed at tackling the problem, such as low-emission zones that bar highly polluting cars from city centers.

The European Commission already has 59 ongoing infringement cases against EU member countries for failing to hit current air pollution targets, with Poland, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania and Portugal among the top offenders. The only three countries to not be facing legal proceedings are the Netherlands, Slovakia and Estonia.

Environmental legal charity ClientEarth also has 53 active cases in national courts demanding cleaner air, including in Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and the U.K.

Ahead of the next round of negotiations on the new targets on Feb. 20, EU countries say they’re on board with the stricter air pollution limits but want to make sure they can ask for a 10-year extension to comply with the new goals if they’re struggling to achieve them. That would give countries until Jan. 1, 2040, instead of 2030, to implement costly air quality measures.

Tighter targets “not realistic”

According to a Council document seen by POLITICO and approved by EU ambassadors on Wednesday, countries also argue that the Parliament’s push to align EU air pollution limits by 2035 with World Health Organization guidelines — which are tighter than the EU’s new proposed targets — is “not realistic” and “not acceptable.”

The Parliament has dug in its heels on the 2035 target and is resisting the move for more flexibility, arguing that such extensions should only be granted under strict conditions.

EU countries initially argued an extension should be granted if the country has a high share of low-income households and a lower national GDP per capita than the EU average — a suggestion the Parliament rejected.

In an effort to find a compromise, the Belgian presidency of the Council — which negotiates EU governments’ common stance — has floated another option, according to the document seen by POLITICO.

A country should receive an exemption if it can prove that air pollution cuts “can only be achieved by replacing a considerable fraction of the existing domestic heating systems” or when “projections … show that the limit values cannot be attained by the attainment deadline” despite adequate measures put in place, the presidency suggests.

That would be a step toward meeting the Parliament’s demand for stricter conditions for extensions.

But whether that’s enough to placate MEPs will become clear on Feb. 20, during the last round of talks on the legislation. Lawmakers are keen to wrap up the file to avoid it falling through the legislative cracks ahead of June’s EU elections.

Meanwhile, scientists and environmental groups warn that allowing EU countries to delay action to fight pollution will result in more premature deaths.

Decade-long delays would result in “increasing health inequalities, not to mention the high economic burden of health costs for countries already under economic duress,” said Sophie Perroud, EU policy coordinator with the Health and Environment Alliance.

“This cannot be the message the EU is sending to people just before the EU elections.”

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