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European air quality plans 'not substantial enough'

January 30, 2018

EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella has criticized nine EU member states for not doing enough to tackle deadly levels of air pollution. They have until the end of next week to rework their proposals.

Children in the UK protest against air pollution (photo: picture alliance/empics/C. Radburn)
Image: picture alliance/empics/C. Radburn

Representatives of nine European Union member states summoned to Brussels on Tuesday to explain how they intend to curb air pollution failed to present plans deemed effective enough.

Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic could face legal action for violating EU law by exceeding pollution levels.

Their proposals "were not substantial enough to change the big picture," EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella said.

"Without new and effective measures, in many cases air quality standards will further continue to be exceeded for months and years, even well beyond 2020," he added. 

Vella gave the nine member states in breach of EU levels until the end of next week to submit new proposals, a spokesperson said.

Deadly consequences

Vella stressed that "400,000 people are still dying prematurely every year because of a massive, widespread failure to address the problem."

A man wearing a mask on a bike (photo: picture alliance/ROPI)
About 400,000 people die prematurely every year due to high pollution levels, Vella saidImage: picture alliance/ROPI

"The deadlines for meeting the legal obligations have long elapsed. And some say we have waited already too long. But we can delay no more. And I have made this very clear to ministers," he said in a statement.

Vella did not share details of the plans submitted by the member states. But if they are not revised to meet his approval next week, Vella could trigger court proceedings — and member states could expect to pay a hefty fine.

"Inaction has consequences. It has consequences for citizens and the polluted air they breathe," the commissioner said in Brussels.

"In the face of such longstanding failures to take serious action, and in view that the ongoing legal process will continue, I urge all member states to address this life-threatening problem with the urgency it deserves."

Germany makes slow progress

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said her country had made progress on reducing the number of cities in breach of EU nitrogen oxide limits — down from 90 in 2016 to 70 last year.

"We are not yet where we need to be," Hendricks admitted in Brussels, adding that it was "quite possible" Germany would face legal action for its failure to address air quality.

Following the Brussels talks, Hendricks said it was possible that air pollution in 20 German cities would still exceed EU limits in 2020. She said she had requested more time for Germany to comply.

Sarah Steffen Sarah works as radio host and producer, reporter and editor.