The EU executive has proposed tighter controls on pollutants and chemicals that harm air quality and foul lakes, rivers and seas, but critics said the plans were too weak and lacked urgency.
As part of a major reform of the EU’s anti-pollution legislation, the European Commission said it planned to tighten air quality standards, including on one of the most dangerous pollutants, fine particulate matter. Water standards are also going to be stricter, with 25 substances added to a control list, such as the category of PFAS (also known as “forever chemicals”), the substance Bisphenol A, pesticides including glyphosate, and antibiotics.
Under the proposals, pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies would be required for the first time to pay the costs of cleaning their products out of wastewater.
The EU’s top official in charge of the European green deal, Frans Timmermans, told reporters: “Getting to climate neutrality is about more than pushing down greenhouse gas emissions … to have a zero pollution environment in 2050 we need to step up action today.
“Day in, day out, we get new information about the degree to which public health is directly endangered by pollution: babies now have microplastics in their blood and there is PFAS in self-caught fish and homegrown vegetables.
“We pay for pollution with taxes, health and human lives. We pay, and the longer we wait to reduce this pollution, the higher the costs to society,”
The legal proposals will be negotiated and probably amended by EU environment ministers and MEPs before coming into force.
The tougher standards on air quality are the EU’s response to the latest guidelines from the World Health Organization recommending stricter controls on key air pollutants, in line with growing evidence about damage to health. The WHO called for greater restrictions on fine particulate matter (PM2.5), coarse particulate matter (PM10), ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide in September 2021, calling air pollution the greatest environmental risk to health.
Fine particulate matter, far smaller than the width of a human hair, can penetrate deep into people’s lungs and enter their bloodstream, contributing to respiratory illnesses and heart disease. In Europe, 300,000 people die prematurely as a result of air pollution, from cardiovascular problems, asthma and lung cancer, while many more live with these diseases. More than 96% of the EU’s urban population live in areas where fine particulate matter exceeds WHO guidelines, according to the European Environment Agency.
Under the EU proposals, the annual limit for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) will be reduced by more than half to 10 micrograms a cubic metre in 2030, down from the current 25μg/m3, but short of the WHO recommendation of 5μg/m3.
According to a commission impact assessment, the policy would improve air quality across the continent by 2030, including a swathe of the south-eastern and central UK, assuming British air quality standards remain unchanged.
However, the Health and Environment Alliance (Heal), an umbrella group of health NGOs and public health experts, said the revision of the ambient air quality directive failed “to address the urgency to act to swiftly reduce the health burden”.
Dr Christiaan Keijzer, the president of the Standing Committee of European Doctors, a Heal member, said: “EU air quality standards must be updated by 2030 at the very latest. In fact, European doctors consider it so urgent that we recommend full alignment with the WHO guidelines happens even faster, by 2025.”
Bas Eickhout, a Green MEP and vice-chair of the European parliament’s environment committee, said the commission’s air quality plans were insufficient. “While both the WHO and the European Environment Agency are ringing the alarm bells for health, the commission is proposing lax air quality standards that are far below what is considered healthy.
“The commission’s failure to act on air pollution undermines the green deal and is a concession to corporations and countries pushing for weaker environmental targets,” he said, adding that this would lead to softer emissions rules on new vehicles.
Responding to the criticism, the EU environment commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius, said the commission’s 2030 interim target took account of what was technically feasible, as well as socio-economic considerations. The commission, he added, had set “a clear trajectory for a zero pollution objective full aligned with science at the latest by 2050 … as soon as new technological and policy developments allow us”.
EU officials have also promised to make it easier for people suffering health problems as a result of pollution to get access to justice, while member states will be empowered to issue more “dissuasive” fines on polluters.
But one NGO said the commission had failed to ensure an effective enforcement mechanism, calling the air quality proposal a significant missed opportunity. “Stricter legal limits risk amounting to more hype than bite if there is no way to enforce them,” said Ugo Taddei, head of clean air at the legal charity ClientEarth.
The commission also wants cleaner lakes and rivers: it is proposing tighter controls on 16 pollutants and will add 25 to the list of substances subject to restrictions, including PFAS, a category spanning more than 4,700 “forever chemicals” widely used in packaging, nonstick pans, textiles, cosmetics and electronic devices. These synthetic substances accumulate in humans and the environment, and have been linked to liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, fertility problems and cancer.
In an update of the EU’s wastewater legislation, the treatment industry will also face a requirement to be energy neutral by 2040, described by one senior EU official as “a mini-revolution for the sector”. Treating wastewater is responsible for about 1% of the EU’s energy use and officials think the sector could make far greater use of renewable power, including generating biogas.