The European Commission proposed changes to regulations for ambient air, surface and groundwater pollutants and treatment of urban wastewater. The annual limit value for the main pollutant – fine particulate matter PM2.5, is set to be lowered to 10 micrograms per cubic meter from 25 micrograms. However, the World Health Organization recommends a maximum of five micrograms.
Air pollution causes 300,000 premature deaths in Europe each year, the European Commission said as it proposed a set of rules with the aim to reduce deaths resulting from levels of the main pollutant PM2.5 above World Health Organization guidelines by more than 75% in ten years. The package includes a revision of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive to improve the sector and make it more cost-effective.
Based on up-to-date scientific evidence, the lists of pollutants to be more strictly controlled in surface waters and groundwater should be expanded with 25 substances, the European Union’s executive body announced.
With stricter air quality rules, numerous authorities that are now formally in the green zone on the European map will have to make substantial efforts to maintain pollution below the new threshold
“Our health depends on our environment. An unhealthy environment has direct and costly consequences for our health. Each year, hundreds of thousands Europeans die prematurely and many more suffer from heart- and lung diseases or pollution-induced cancers. The longer we wait to reduce this pollution, the higher the costs to society. By 2050, we want our environment to be free of harmful pollutants,” Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal Frans Timmermans said.
Cleaner ambient air by 2030
The proposed revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directives (AAQDs) should set interim 2030 EU air quality standards and align them more closely with World Health Organization guidelines, while putting the 27-member bloc on a trajectory to achieve zero air pollution by 2050, in synergy with climate-neutrality efforts.
The EU targets zero air polution levels by mid-century
The commission said a regular review of the air quality standards should be conducted to reassess them in line with the latest scientific evidence as well as societal and technological developments.
The annual limit value for the main pollutant, fine particulate matter PM2.5, is proposed to be cut to 10 micrograms per cubic meter from 25 micrograms. It means numerous national and local authorities that now have formally adequate air quality would have to make substantial efforts to remain in the green zone on the map.
However, the World Health Organization recommends a maximum of five micrograms.
Health damage from air pollution to imply compensation entitlement
The revision will ensure that people suffering health damages from air pollution have the right to be compensated in the case of a violation of EU air quality rules, the commission said. It added they would also have the right to be represented by nongovernmental organisations through collective actions for damage compensation.
France must pay a second fine, EUR 20 million, for failing to improve air quality in urban areas
Of note, the Council of State, France’s highest administrative court, has just fined the government EUR 20 million for failing again to improve air quality in more than a dozen urban areas. It issued the initial order in 2017.
Last year the same judicial authority told the French government to pay EUR 10 million for the same reason. The case was brought to court by environmentalist organizations.
The European Commission claimed its proposal would help achieve dramatic improvement in air quality by 2030, leading to gross annual benefits estimated at EUR 42 billion up to EUR 121 billion, for less than EUR 6 billion in costs per year.
Upgrading urban wastewater treatment
“Polluted air and water harm our health and our economy and the environment, affecting the vulnerable most of all. It is therefore our duty to clean up air and water for our own and future generations. The cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of prevention,” European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius stated.
The amendments to wastewater rules envisage reaching energy neutrality in the sector by 2040 and improving the quality of sludge to allow for more reuse, in energy and fertilizer production. They include obligations to recover nutrients from wastewater, new standards for micropollutants and new monitoring requirements for microplastics.
Sludge from wastewater is a resource for energy and fertilizer production
To help manage heavy rains, made more frequent by climate change, there is a requirement to establish integrated water management plans in larger cities, the package reads. EU countries would be required to ensure access to sanitation for all, in particular vulnerable and marginalized groups.
As 92% of toxic micropollutants found in EU wastewaters come from pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, a new Extended Producer Responsibility scheme would require producers to pay for the cost of removing them in line with the polluter-pays principle and incentivize research and innovation into toxic-free products.
Protection of surface and groundwater against more pollutants
The European commissioners want more detailed monitoring of PFAS, a class of so-called forever chemicals. The list should include bisphenol A, a group of pesticides and pesticide degradation products like glyphosate, and some painkillers, antiinflammatory drugs and antibiotics, they revealed.
In addition, learning the lessons from incidents such as the mass death of fish in the Oder river, the commission proposes mandatory downstream river basin warnings after incidents.
Standards for 16 pollutants including heavy metals and industrial chemicals will be updated (mostly tightened) and four pollutants that are no longer an EU-wide threat will be removed.
The proposals will now be considered by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU.