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As part of the European Green Deal, the EU plans to revise air quality standards with a legislative proposal by the end of 2022.  In its response to the European Commission’s consultation on the revision of these rules, EPHA calls on the Commission to be bold and take the necessary action to protect public health. 

We are already well aware of the effects of air pollution on planetary health, and the need to tackle the current climate and biodiversity crises, but its most fundamental impact is on human health. Air pollution is a global health challenge that affects us all. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA)’s most recent Air Quality report, air pollution was responsible for about 400,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2018. Following reports of the links between the COVID-19 pandemic and air pollution, the need to improve the quality of the air we breathe has never been more important. The proposal for new EU rules on air quality is welcome and the more these are aligned with public health principles, the greater the opportunities to improve Europeans’ health and reduce health costs.

Better prevent and tackle air pollution

Defining higher air quality standards and controlling their implementation must be at the core of the proposed new rules. The World Health Organization (WHO) will update its current guidelines on air quality, which date back to 2005. The EU’s proposal must align EU air standards with the latest WHO Air Quality Guidelines and the latest scientific evidence. The EU must present an ambitious action plan for clean air, which explores and supports the legal, financial, coordination or promotion tools, such as:

  • Revision of climate and health harmful air pollutant limits (e.g. post Euro 6/VI vehicle emission standards),
  • Expand zero emission vehicles, end all sales of conventional fossil fuel-powered cars by 2028 & phase out all petrol & diesel cars by 2045,
  • Urban policies e.g. ultra-low emission zones, congestion charging parking policies, tax measures & incentives, encourage car-sharing.

The EU must mobilise resources to invest in walking, cycling and improve public transport infrastructures to achieve a paradigm  shift in people’s mobility. In that regard, the health benefits of increased physical activities could be also quantified. Preventing pollution means ending direct or indirect public financing of polluting processes. This requires full alignment of the EU budget and COVID-19 recovery funds with a zero pollution objective of cutting pollution at the source. The EU should adopt a clean air conditionality list for the Next Generation EU, with a full application of the “polluter-pays” principle.

Better identify air pollution and its effects

The choice of key metrics are crucial to check the efficiency of European environmental actions, with the implications for people’s health put at their heart. In fact, every action in the field of environment and health must be based on evidence-informed science. EPHA calls for decision makers to follow the guidance of the latest scientific evidence on environmental pollution health damages, as a basis of any future policy.

Better monitor and report air pollution

EPHA welcomes the involvement of the EEA and strongly recommends more research on health costs of air pollution. However, the need for additional data should not be interpreted as a way of delaying action, as there is plenty of existing evidence to show the need for action now.  The report Health costs of air pollution in European cities and the linkage with transport, carried out for EPHA in 2020 and the largest of its kind, used  a comprehensive methodology to examine the health costs of air pollution in 432 cities across all EU member states, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, following up on a 2018 study on Health Impacts and Health Impacts of Diesel Emissions in the EU, in 9 European countries. Based on the data gathered by the EEA, experts have noted some discrepancies on the number of air monitoring stations and where they are located, e.g. some cities have a single air quality monitoring station in park, not near a congested road. Accessible, transparent and reliable local data is a key issue the EU must solve to improve monitoring accountability.  The EU should also consider carrying out similar research intiatives. 

The proposed new EU rules on air quality can be a real opportunity to improve our health by cleaning the air we breathe. The EU must ensure the highest level of ambition as it sets out the roadmap for these new rules, for the benefit of us all.