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A group of health scientists has today published a scientific commentary which shows the significant consequences that postponing deadlines to achieve new EU air quality objectives would have for Europeans’ health.

The European Commission’s 2021 Zero Pollution Action Plan committed to revising the outdated EU Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD), a legal instrument crucial in regulating air pollution across EU Member States. Current EU limits for pollutants like particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) differ significantly from the 2021 WHO guidelines, emphasising the need for EU law to align with scientific evidence.

The revised AAQD, as proposed by the European Commission in October 2022, falls short of WHO recommendations – with air quality limit values for PM2.5 and NO2 that are twice the value of the WHO guidelines to be achieved by 2030.

In September 2023, the European Parliament voted for WHO guideline alignment by 2035, but the Council has since endorsed the Commission’s original proposal, and included mechanisms to delay compliance until 2040. These mechanisms for Member States to delay compliance can be requested for a wide range of reasons including having a lower GDP than the EU average – this will therefore result in the most economically vulnerable people breathing the worse quality air.

Trilogue discussions among the Council, Parliament, and Commission, as of January 2023, lack clarity on WHO alignment and potential derogations, thereby posing significant risks to public health and vulnerable groups.

Zorana Jovanovic Andersen, Professor in Environmental Epidemiology, Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen, Chair of European Respiratory Society Environment and Health Committee:  

“Allowing additional delays in reaching new EU air quality standards, differentiated based on GDP, are completely unacceptable to ERS community, as they would widen existing inequalities in air pollution levels and health burden between East and West. 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.”

Ebba Malmqvist, Associate Professor in Environmental Medicine, Lund University and Chair of Policy Committee of International Society of Environmental Epidemiology:  

“It was with dismay we learnt about the Council proposal to postpone the right to clean air to 2040 for the poorest half of EU. In our article we have assessed the health costs of this delay to amount to more than 300,000 premature deaths.”

Prof. Dr. Barbara Hoffmann MPH, Head of Environmental Epidemiology, Heinrich-Heine-University of Düsseldorf, and Chair of the European Respiratory Society Advocacy Council:  

“Every year of delay of reaching limit values directly translates into more deaths and disease. For Italy and Poland alone, 120,000 and 90,000 additional deaths will result from delaying compliance with the suggested limit values from 2030 to 2040. For the 15 member states with the lowest GDP in Europe, about 330,000 additional deaths will be caused by this delay. It is highly unfair to put this huge burden on societies that are already struggling. We urgently need to reduce air pollution.”

Margherita Tolotto, Policy Manager Air and Noise, European Environmental Bureau:  

“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. Postponing the achievement of the new air quality standards for 10 years, from 2030 to 2040, as requested by some key countries in the Council, is unacceptable. This study shows how many premature deaths this delay will cause in some EU countries. Financial implications are also relevant, as we need to keep in mind that the cost of inaction is much higher than the cost of action to reduce air pollution.”

Sophie Perroud, EU Policy Coordinator, Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL):  

“Allowing some countries decade-long delays from addressing air pollution, despite the urgent need to address the heavy toll on health, would only result in more costs, inequalities between countries and transboundary emissions. We urge the Council to support the application of the new legally binding air pollutants limit values equally and without delays across all member states.”

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