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Leader or laggard: EU struggles with ‘zero pollution’ ambition

Leader or laggard: EU struggles with ‘zero pollution’ ambition

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Leader or laggard: EU struggles with ‘zero pollution’ ambition

As the EU sets out new measures to hit an ambitious “zero pollution” target by 2050, it finds itself under fire both from NGOs that say it’s lagging behind and from countries that warn it’s racing too far ahead.

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

As part of that effort, Brussels is unveiling new rules on Wednesday aimed at tackling air pollution, cleaning up how cities treat wastewater and reining in water pollutants.

NGOs are paying particularly close attention to the long-awaited revision of EU air quality rules, which they say should be brought fully in line with the World Health Organization’s stricter guidelines.

An undated draft of the rules, obtained by POLITICO, suggests that the Commission will propose tightening the bloc’s current limits for a number of pollutants, including fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide emissions, but stop short of aligning with the WHO’s recommendations.

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

Despite air pollution levels falling across the bloc in recent years, dirty air is still the main environmental risk factor for human health in Europe and caused well over 300,000 premature deaths in 2019, according to the European Environment Agency.

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

Brussels’ proposal for stricter targets — and the measures it takes to ensure countries implement those targets — will show “if the EU will be a global leader in fighting air pollution or remain a laggard,” he said.

Lagging behind

But as the European Commission looks to set more ambitious targets to tackle pollution — and make good on its 2050 pledge — a number of countries are likely to balk at having to step up their efforts.

Typically, the most vocal opposition has come from those governments — mostly in Central and Eastern Europe — that are failing most dramatically to meet the current guidelines, which were set in 2008.

That’s likely to be the case again this time around, NGOs fear, particularly as countries focus on securing enough energy supplies to get through the winter. A number of countries in the region, including Hungary and Poland, are resorting to burning cheaper, dirtier fuels while energy prices spike, worsening their pollution problem.

But the problem runs deeper than a few countries: In an assessment published last month, the Commission found that a majority of EU countries are still not fully compliant with the EU’s environmental laws. Some 18 countries currently face infringement procedures for breaching air pollution limits.

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Critics say that’s a result of Brussels’ failure to ensure its rules are properly enforced at the national level.

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

Margherita Tolotto, the EEB’s senior air quality officer, said the EU executive often uses infringement procedures as a “threat,” and doesn’t take countries to court when they fail to adequately respond to initial warnings.  

That inaction — and countries’ own lack of ambition — is slowing down progress, NGOs say.

According to the European Environment Agency, the bloc is not on track to meet its interim target to reduce air pollution by more than 55 percent by 2030. Assuming full compliance from countries — which is not a given — the bloc is on track to meet that target by 2032.

The EU’s big push to reach “zero pollution,” which echoes the net zero target for climate, is an “admission of failure,” said Chris Hilson, a professor of law at the University of Reading. “The last 30 years of EU environmental law and policy were already supposed to be ensuring that.”

Local impact

Slow progress has pushed some EU residents to resort to legal action at the national level, saying capitals should not be waiting for Brussels to set new rules.

A group of nine Belgian citizens launched a case 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, legal charity ClientEarth said Belgian authorities “are exposing people to levels of air pollution that are up to four times higher than scientists have deemed is acceptable to breathe.”

Belgium should be getting out ahead of the EU and tightening its own standards, the claimants argued.

“The Belgian state should not wait for the moment until countries like Hungary and Poland agree on … stricter levels to measure air pollution,” said Eric, a Brussels-based claimant who suffers from 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 doesn’t yield the desired effects. “When we see that the advocacy work doesn’t pay off … that we are still not being listened to, then, you resort to the judge,” said Anaïs Berthier, the head of ClientEarth’s Brussels office.

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Across the bloc, poorer Eastern and Central European countries are most affected, as well as regions with heavy industry. In the coastal town of Taranto in southern Italy, for example, experts say toxic emissions from a steel plant are a key factor explaining higher-than-average cancer rates among locals — a problem they claim was made worse by Brussels’ failure to punish the government for inaction.

Pollution can also have vastly different effects within the same city: An investigation by Brussels outlet Médor found that residents of Brussels’ lower-income city center face significantly higher levels of fine particle pollution than those living in wealthier, leafier neighborhoods — and linked that exposure to worse health outcomes.

“I think that every inhabitant in Brussels has the right to clean air, wherever he lives,” said Eric, the Belgian claimant. “Whether it is a poor area or a richer area, there should be no difference.”

Louise Guillot contributed reporting.

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