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European Commissioner Vella has referred 6 out of 9 countries to the European Court of Justice for failure to keep EU air quality standards. The 6 countries that will be referred to the EU Court of Justice are France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Romania and the United Kingdom. The European Commission decided to let off the hook Spain, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Instead, these member states’ proposed measures will be closely monitored.

Anne Stauffer, Director for Strategy and Campaigns at Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) comments:

Today’s decision to send 6 countries to the EU court of justice shows that national governments can’t get away with ignoring clean air requirements and with allowing manifold impacts on our health. Unfortunately today’s decision is halfhearted, as some countries which are also in breach of air standards were let off the hook. With this double standard in pursuing air pollution, EU Commissioner Vella sends the wrong message to Europe’s citizens, as everyone in the whole of Europe has a right to clean air and to having their health protected.”

Air pollution is the number one environmental threat to health in Europe and worldwide. According to the latest figures released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in early May, seven million early deaths are due to air pollution outdoors and indoors annually.

In the European Union, air pollution continues to be an invisible killer, despite some progress on cutting down harmful air pollutants and a comprehensive regulatory framework in place. In the EU, air pollution leads to about 400,000 early deaths each year, with costs of up to 940 billion EUR, according to the European Environment Agency [Note: 399,000 due to exposure to particulate matter PM, 75,000 due to NO2 exposure, and 13,600 due to ozone exposure. These figures cannot be added up, as this would be double counting PM and NO2 premature deaths. See: EEA, Air Quality in Europe 2017]

For decades, the EU has had the goal to achieve clean air that doesn’t harm human health. The first standards on ambient air quality were adopted in the mid 1990s; the legally binding air quality standards on which the current infringement action is based on were agreed in 2008 (EU ambient air quality directive DR 2008/50/EC).

In two cases, the EU court of justice has already ruled on clean air in the EU: in 2017, the court reprimanded Bulgaria for clean air failure (for not keeping PM standards), on 22 February 2018 it concluded that Poland had failed clean air obligations and infringed EU law (for PM standards).

Reactions from HEAL members:

Anne Stauffer, Director for Strategy and Campaigns at HEAL: “We welcome EU Commissioner Vella’s decision to take Germany to court for failure to comply with EU air quality standards. The referral to the court should be a wake up call for the German government to prioritise clean air. Air pollution causes about 66.000 premature deaths annually in the country.

Action on air quality is essential to protect the health of people in Germany. Certain clean air measures also contribute to tackling climate change and boosting our health overall. Unfortunately there was too little public debate in Germany so far on these “triple win” and transformative measures and useful exchanges such as the recent discussion on offering free public transportation as a way to achieve clean air were cut short.”

Roberto Romizi, President of ISDE Italy and Agostino Di Ciaula, President of the Scientific Committee of ISDE Italy: “Today’s referral to the EU court of justice should be a wake up call for the new Italian government to make clean air a priority. The high toll on Italian’s health because of air pollution is inacceptable and completely preventable. It is estimated that almost 90.000people prematurely each year because of exposure to particulate matter and ozone. As doctors we think that the Italian government and Italian cities have a unique opportunity to prioritise those measures that will be beneficial not only the quality of our air, but also help to tackle climate change and boost our health overall.”

Charlotte Lepitre, Environment and Health Coordinator, France Nature Environnement: “Air Pollution is the number 1 environmental concern for the French. But while the recent Air Pollution Reduction Plan was a good step forward, what we need are legally binding actions – and that is what the EU laws are for.

This is a significant day for French citizens and their health as the European Commission has seen right through the government’s weak proposals that feature no binding measures, no implementation procedure, no timeline and no indicators of success.”

Ruth Echeverria, Research Manager, Fondacion Alborada: “The decision to let Spain off the hook and not refer the country to the EU Court of Justice for poor air quality is bad news for the health of Spanish people, especially for those already suffering such as asthmatics and those susceptible to environmental pollution. Air pollution leads to 28.000 early deaths annually in Spain. This health toll is unacceptably high, and also completely preventable. Spanish people have a right to clean air, and the Spanish government hasn’t done enough to improve air quality significantly and in the long-term. And now they have been let down by the European Commission, too.”

Contact: Elke Zander, Communications and Media Coordinator, elke@env-health.org, +32 (0)2 234 36 47