Cities breach EU and WHO air quality limits

26th September 2012

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  • Air



More than 80% of the EU's urban population is exposed to air pollution levels exceeding limits suggested by the World Health Organisation (WHO)

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has confirmed that 18%–30% of EU city dwellers are breathing air with levels of particulate material (PM10 or PM2.5) that exceeds EU safe limits, and that 80%–95% are exposed to levels higher than those recommended by the WHO.

In its latest annual report on air quality across the bloc, the EEA confirms that, despite significant improvements to air quality over the last decade, concentrations of air pollutants harmful to human health and the environment, including PM10, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ozone (O3), are “too high”.

The report warns that many member states are still not complying with agreed pollution limits, in particular NOx targets – which just 15 out of the 27 met in 2010. Emissions of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – the most harmful of nitrogen oxides – were within safe limits throughout the nine years to 2010 in only Estonia, Ireland and Lativa, says the agency.

The amount of nitrogen in the atmosphere is posing a significant risk to Europe’s ecosystems, the report confirms, with 11% of the bloc’s sensitive ecosystem area at risk of acidification and 69% at risk of eutrophication (excessive plant growth).

The UK, which met its NOx limit but is in breach of legally binding EU NO2 targets, is listed as one of the member states at risk of eutrophication. Meanwhile, London is confirmed as one of the many central and western European cities that exceeded daily limits for PM10 during 2010.

Spain is revealed as the poorest performing EU country in 2010, as it failed to meet three of the four EU emissions ceilings covering the main air pollutants – NOx; sulphur dioxide (SO2); ammonia (NH3); and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC).

In more positive news, the report confirms that levels of SO2 from EU members halved during 2001–10, NOx emissions decreased by 26% and carbon monoxide output fell by one-third.

However, in launching the EEA’s report, EU environment commissioner Janez Potočnik said it highlighted the amount of work still left to do and that tough economic conditions must not been seen as a barrier to tackling pollution.

“Thanks to a number of important legislative and other EU initiatives, the air we breathe today is generally cleaner than it was 10 or 20 years ago,” he said. “It is one of the few areas where we have seen an absolute decoupling between economic growth and emissions. In some cases, such as SO2 emissions, significant economic growth has been paired with an 80-90% decrease in the reported emissions in less than two decades.

“Nevertheless, as is made very clear also in the EEA report, we still have problems, and they are not residual. We are still some way from achieving our objective of reaching levels of air quality that do not give rise to significant negative impacts on human health and the environment.”

Potočnik went on to pledge that 2013 will be the year of the air in EU policy and would see the launch a review of European air quality legislation.

“Unfortunately, we are presently facing quite a number of breaches in EU air quality legislation. Some member states and regions are facing persistent problems in meeting the existing air quality and emission standards,” he admitted.

“Some still argue that in times of severe economic hardship, air pollution measures are too costly. I would argue that air pollution itself imposes much greater costs on the economy. If you consider all costs, including natural capital accounting, clean air is an investment that makes a lot of economic sense.”

In March, after admitting in a court case that the UK was not going to meet the EU’s legally binding NO2 targets, Defra argued that the benefits of meeting the EU’s air quality targets could be outweighed by the costs of compliance.

And in its recently published timetable to reform environmental legislation, following the suggestions of the red tape challenge, the department confirms that in 2013 it will lobby for amendments to Air Quality Directive changing the NO2 targets.


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