EU warns of persistent air quality violations

5 countries now on notice face potential legal action

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Clouds and haze over Vienna, Austria, where particulate air pollution often exceeds standards set to protect human health. @bberwyn photo.

By Bob Berwyn

Five large EU countries are on warning after repeatedly failing to meet air pollution  standards for nitrogen oxide, a precursor to smog and a serious health risk in and of itself. If Member States fail to act within two months, the Commission may decide to take the matter to the Court of Justice of the EU.

Studies have shown that more than 400,000 people die prematurely each year due to poor air quality, while millions more suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Persistently high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) caused almost 70 000 premature deaths in Europe in 2013, which was almost three times the number of deaths by road traffic accidents in the same year.

Because of the persistent breaches, the European Commission this week sent final warning to  Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom, urging those countries to improve air quality and safeguard public health.

European law requires member states to deliver cleanup plans when limits are exceeded. The warning from the EU detailed the violations, with  persistent breaches of NO2 limits in:

Germany (28 air quality zones, including Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Köln);

France (19 air quality zones, among them Paris, Marseille and Lyon);

– The United Kingdom (16 air quality zones, among them London, Birmingham, Leeds, and Glasgow);

Italy (12 air quality zones, including Rome, Milan and Turin);

Spain (3 air quality zones, one being Madrid and two covering Barcelona).

Improving air quality means stricter controls on emissions, accelerating the overall transition to a low-carbon economy, reducing traffic volumes, switching to cleaner fuels and to electric vehicles and even adapting driving behavior.

Air quality has remained a problem in many places for a number of years. In 23 out of 28 Member States air quality standards are still being exceeded – in total in over more than 130 cities across Europe.

The Commission has taken legal action against Member States over poor air quality since 2008, focussing initially on particulate matter (PM10), for which the compliance deadline was 2005, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), for which the compliance deadline was 2010.

To date legal action on NO2 involves 12 Member States, with ongoing infringement cases against Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom. Action against other Member States may follow.

Road traffic is responsible for around 40 percent of nitrogen oxides emissions in the EU. At ground-level the relative contribution of traffic is much higher (as emissions from high industrial stacks are diluted before reaching the ground). Of the total emitted nitrogen oxide from traffic, around 80 percent comes from diesel powered vehicles.

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