‘Very worrying’ pollution is ‘so prevalent’ in Europe, says Estonian climate minister – as it happened

Last modified: 01: 56 PM GMT+0

Kristen Michal says clean air is ‘human right’ and breathing ‘should not make us sick’ after revelations about Europe’s toxic air. This live blog is closed

Summary of the day

  • Politicians across Europe have a moral responsibility to urgently tackle the continent’s dangerously polluted air, according to Maria Neira, the director of the World Health Organization’s department of environment, climate change and health.

  • Kaja Shukova, North Macedonia’s environment minister, said that “air pollution is a problem that we work on continuously and for which there are no quick solutions”.

  • Adjusting European standards to the World Health Organization’s guidelines on air quality “will be a difficult debate,” the Bulgarian environment minister, Julian Popov, said.

  • Estonia’s minister of climate, Kristen Michal, said “it is very worrying that the fine particle pollution is so prevalent”.

  • Europe has a “credible plan” to reach new air quality targets, said Pascal Canfin, chair of the European parliament’s environment committee.


Norbert Lins, a member of the European parliament from Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, stressed that the World Health Organization has “guidelines and not limit values for the emissions and air pollutants”.

Lins, who has been working on air quality issues in the parliament on behalf of the centre-right European People’s party, said in a statement that “only when someone is constantly exposed to such high emissions, eg standing on a street side for hours straight, then we can talk about real danger”.

The German politician added that “currently it is also very hard to compare the values we have, since the sampling points are not placed in a harmonised way throughout Europe,” noting that he has been “fighting for a more aligned method”.

General view of the polluted city of Skopje, on November 11, 2020. Photograph: Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images


How is your region doing?

Check out our interactive map showing Europe’s pollution divide.


Jutta Paulus, a German Green member of the European parliament, said a key priority now is to stick to the legislature’s proposal when negotiations start on a revised law that sets a stricter limit and target values for several pollutants.

“Some member states,” she said, “are reluctant to have those stricter limit values enshrined into European legislation.”

She also cautioned that Europe needs to “look at agriculture, because a lot of particulate matter is related to agricultural emissions and there member states are extremely careful”.


Air pollution is a “threat that we have to face,” said Javi López, who led the European parliament’s work on limiting pollutants in the air.

López, a member of the Socialists’ Party of Catalonia, told the Guardian that the focus now should be not only on strengthening standards, but also on improving implementation.

“We need more representative numbers and monitoring,” he said, underscoring the need for better enforcement of standards.

And, according to the parliamentarian, there is a need to help local authorities comply. Some regional administrations, he said, want to improve air quality but “don’t know how to do it.”

A top concern for López now is timing. The European parliament agreed last week on its position on new air pollution limits, but EU governments still need to come to an agreement on their own stance and then negotiate a final deal.

The process could be a matter of a few months – or with elections coming up, potentially drag on for over a year.


Speaking in the French senate, Britain’s King Charles III underscored the role of the private sector in developing solutions that allow for a transition to a more sustainable world.

Together with the French president. Emmanuel Macron, the king will meet today with French and British business leaders to discuss investment in clean growth and preserving biodiversity.


Readers weigh in:

“We must stop measuring economic growth in terms that consider increased use of fossil fuels as positive growth,” Simon Jackson writes in.

“Taxes are used to pay for roads and the health costs they generate. We should be investing public money in green infrastructure as much if not more,” he added.

Jonathan Barker writes: “Is it actually possible to make anywhere ‘safe’?” and says the WHO target is “unachievable”.

Please keep sharing your thoughts and we will feature more comments on the blog.


'Very worrying' that pollution 'so prevalent', says Estonian minister

Estonia’s minister of climate, Kristen Michal, says his country’s air is relatively good but efforts are underway to improve it further.

“It is very worrying that the fine particle pollution is so prevalent,” the minister said in an emailed statement.

“Clean air is a universal human right, breathing should not make us sick. In Estonia, we have relatively good air quality and low pollution levels, but even here we can attribute more than 1,000 premature deaths per year to fine particle and NOx [nitrogen oxides] pollution.”

The main problems with air quality in Estonia, he said, “are connected to residential heating (wood combustion) and lesser extent traffic.”

The country has put in place measures to reduce emissions from residential heating, the minister noted, including financial incentives and educational campaigns.

And, Michal said, he sees “a lot of overlap between combating pollution and meeting our climate and biodiversity goals”.


Europe’s politicians have moral responsibility to tackle air pollution, says WHO environment director

Politicians across Europe have a moral responsibility to urgently tackle the continent’s dangerously polluted air, according to Maria Neira, the director of the World Health Organization’s department of environment, climate change and health.

“As a medical doctor, I cannot resist the temptation to remind people that this is about strokes, this is about heart disease, this is about asthma, this is about lung cancer, diabetes, low birth weight, preterm births, cognitive decline,” she said. “We need to remind people that any time you breathe, you are breathing something toxic into your body which is having a devastating impact.”

She said it would not be acceptable for 98% of Europeans to be supplied with dangerously polluted water, and the same should be true for the air they breathe.

“People say our guidelines are very strict and very ambitious. But I don’t see ambition in proposing something that will make so many people less sick … Having the knowledge we have [on the health impacts of air pollution] I think there is a clear and absolute moral responsibility.”

Read the full story here by Matthew Taylor, Pamela Duncan and Ajit Niranjan.

Rai News has reported on the Guardian’s investigation into air quality in Europe, which found that 98% of Europeans are breathing highly damaging polluted air linked to 400,000 deaths a year.

Catch up on the original story here.

'No quick solutions' for air pollution, North Macedonia minister says

North Macedonia is the worst-hit country in Europe when it comes to dangerous levels of air pollution, according to a Guardian investigation published this week.

But Kaja Shukova, North Macedonia’s environment minister, said that “air pollution is a problem that we work on continuously and for which there are no quick solutions”.

In an emailed statement, Shukova said that her ministry creates policies following European and global standards. “What is important,” the minister wrote, “is the support and strengthening of the local capacities of the municipalities.”

“From our investment programs, we have so far financially supported the creation of 10 plans for dealing with air pollution for 10 cities/municipalities that have shown the highest level of air pollution in the past years,” she said.

North Macedonia, Shukova noted, is “working on gasification, changing the ways of heating with more ecological ones in state and public institutions, and of course functioning of the state monitoring system for ambient air quality”.


The hills that circle Skopje keep citizens safe when smog grows thick, but they also trap the toxins that make its air among the most menacing of any city in Europe.

The mountains are the only escape, says Katarina, a 33-year-old accountant, as she walks home from an evening hike. “I was wearing a mask for air pollution before Covid.”

Dirty fuel, bad design and tricky terrain have for decades choked the capital of North Macedonia. The city sits in a valley where ageing factories whirr next to homes and offices. In winter, when people stoke stoves with waste wood and rubbish, warm air rises up to meet the cold and heavy mountain air above, forming a lid that traps pollution close to the ground.

The clouds last for days if the wind does not blow. “It feels and tastes like burnt plastic,” says Dragana Gjurcinoska, a 29-year-old event manager at the Panoramika hotel at the foot of the Vodno mountain.

Skopje is home to three of the most polluted districts on the continent, a Guardian analysis based on modelling of European air quality data has revealed.

Read the full story here.

Europe's plan is credible, top EU lawmaker says

Europe has a “credible plan” to reach new air quality targets, said Pascal Canfin, chair of the European parliament’s environment committee.

The French parliamentarian, who is a member of the centrist Renew Europe group, told the Guardian this week that there are blueprints in place to tackle what he described as the three key drivers of air pollution: road traffic, coal and nitrogen.

Last week, the European parliament called for a stricter 2035 limit for several pollutants. Canfin’s committee had originally voted in favour of 2030 limits, but the timeline shifted amid opposition from right-wing politicians.

“We would have easily supported 2030 in the plenary but we knew that we would have lost because it was considered by some as too early,” Canfin said. “We tabled an amendment to postpone from 2030 to 2035 in order to keep the WHO target alive from a political perspective.”

“I personally could have been more ambitious, but there is no point in being ambitious and lose,” he said, adding that the parliament’s position is still “way better than the commission proposal and the current situation.”

Everyone can’t be perfect, Bulgarian minister says

Adjusting European standards to the World Health Organization’s guidelines on air quality “will be a difficult debate,” said Bulgarian environment minister, Julian Popov.

Speaking to the Guardian, the minister said that in his view “standards should be set at levels that will not discourage countries to achieve them”.

Popov argued that European and international standards should give an “orientation” while countries and municipalities should set their own, which could vary.

“We can’t ask everybody to be absolutely perfect,” the Bulgarian minister said, adding: “The standard should be set to prevent danger.”

European standards “could be tightened — but they are adequate,” he said.

Bulgaria has made progress over the past years, according to Popov. “Things are getting better and better,” he said. “Air quality standards are reasonably good,” he said. But, he added: “that’s not enough, obviously, because cleaner air is better.”


We’re all breathing toxic air

Good morning and welcome back to the Guardian’s Europe live blog. Today we will be looking at an issue impacting all of us: air pollution.

Almost all Europeans are living in areas with dangerous levels of air pollution, a Guardian investigation has found. Parts of eastern Europe and Italy have particularly high levels of PM2.5, tiny airborne particles mostly produced from the burning of fossil fuels.

Read this fascinating dispatch by the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida from Cremona, a province south of Milan where residents say life is becoming unbearable amid pollution from industry, cars and farm animal waste. And see how your area compares in this interactive map.

As always, we want to hear from you: send comments and suggestions to lili.bayer@theguardian.com.



Lili Bayer

The GuardianTramp

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