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Breathing easier in Europe

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 16:41

By Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment

Air quality matters. It is an issue for public health and for the environment. Poor air quality reduces the average life expectancy of EU citizens by 8 months, with considerably worse effects for people living in ‘hot spots’. And despite all our efforts, we are still a long way from the goal stated in the 6th Environmental Action Programme of ‘air quality with no significant adverse effects on human health and/or environment’.

Ensuring compliance with the EU limit values, in particular PM10 and NO2, remains a challenge throughout the EU, including in the UK. This remains the case even though these limits were adopted as long ago as 1999.

But of course most action on air quality takes place in the Member States. European Union air quality legislation is built around the idea of subsidiarity and Member States are responsible for deciding which abatement measures to implement. The subsidiarity concept is demanding of Member States, if they are to deliver effective air quality plans: it depends on good coordination internally at many levels; national, regional and local. Unfortunately, insufficient preparation, assessment and management all too often result in Member States’ non-compliance.

To take the example of the UK; it still exceeds the PM10 limit values in London (where the maximum permitted 35 days in exceedance has already been exceeded) and Gibraltar, where even the less stringent annual limit value was exceeded in 2008. The UK has re-notified the European Commission of its wish for a time extension in respect of London and this is being looked at by my services in the Commission.

But the UK is not alone. Addressing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a challenge for most major urban areas in the EU. Most Member States are preparing their applications for the extension of the compliance deadline up to the latest possible date of 1 January 2015.

We are giving our support to Member states by providing a platform for exchange of best air quality management practices, and by giving additional guidance to help with the preparation of time extension notifications. In April this year, we also organised an NO2 Workshop for the competent authorities that was by all accounts highly appreciated by the Member States.

The biggest culprit, of course, is road transport. It is by far the most important contributor to the NO2 problem. Action across departments and different levels of government is urgently required to ensure the swift and effective application of the necessary measures. And that challenge is even greater than we thought: recent data that shows that vehicle emission standards (the EURO norms) are not delivering as much improvement in the real world as we thought they were.

We need measures which address issues such as smooth traffic flow, reduced transport activity, the switch to more eco-friendly modes in urban areas (cycling, walking) and green public procurement. Integrated approach with policies such as spatial planning and other means are becoming even more relevant.

The European Commission is already taking steps to improve the performance of the EURO vehicle emission standards, and to ensure adequate performance of the main upcoming EURO VI/6 standards for heavy duty and for passenger cars.

But the Member States have work to do as well. We are looking to them to:

  • Ensure effective implementation of the vehicle type approval system that is fit for purpose and addresses real-word performance of vehicles;
  • Develop with the Commission and other Member States effective emissions control legislation in the relevant regulatory committees.

As the ‘Guardian of the Treaty’ we must – and will – ensure enforcement in order to protect Europeans from air pollution. But clearly we each have a role to play if we want to improve the quality of our European air. We will continue to help where we can by helping exchanges between Member States and by making innovative technologies – such as GMES-Atmosphere – available to help contribute to the most cost effective and workable solutions.

We don’t want air to become a scarce resource.