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This October’s vote on the National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) Directive at the European Parliament felt like a tainted victory to many campaigners.

Although the vote strengthened existing rules and partly proved the increased commitment of MEPs towards improving air quality, the Parliament’s lack of ambition brought dark clouds upon an otherwise positive vote.

Concretely, associations claim, the EU Parliament turned its back on the opportunity to save 42,800 additional lives every year from 2025 onwards.

On the 28th of October, members of the European Parliament voted to support a series of reduction commitments from 2020 to 2030 on a range of health damaging pollutants including methane and ammonia. Although the vote is stronger than the Commission’s proposal, it has weakened the Environment and Public Health Committee (ENVI) position, notably in the rejection of potentially harmful flexibilities on target dates and the adoption of the less ambitious emission levels suggested by the European Commission.

Is the Parliament’s answer to the increasingly deadly issue of air pollution too timid? Nina Renshaw, Secretary General of EPHA, and Catherine Hartmann, Secretary General of the European COPD Coalition, seem to think so.

“Air quality across Europe today is unacceptable and causes suffering for millions, as well as over 400,000 premature deaths every year.” stated Renshaw. “MEPs missed the opportunity to achieve the air quality standards recommended by the World Health Organization. Environment Ministers should be more ambitious and close these loopholes on farm emissions and mercury”.

“We are seriously concerned by the lack of long-term vision some MEPs have demonstrated” added Hartmann”and in particular for those already suffering from respiratory conditions, such as COPD or asthma, whose lives are tremendously impaired by poor quality of air. Remember, we do not choose the air we breathe”.

According to the WHO, air pollution is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and cancer. The impossibility to breathe clean air also impacts the the development of other chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity.

New figures made public this week by the European Environment Agency (EEA) prior to the Environment Ministers’ Council meeting that will to deliberate on the NEC Directive shortly reveal quite a grim picture. According to a report published by the EEA concerning air quality in Europe, a total of 9,300 people died prematurely due to a condition caused by particulate pollution in 2012. Another 170 people died prematurely due to nitrogen dioxide, and 2,300 people due to high ozone levels in Belgium, according to the EEA’s calculations. A total of 11,700 casualties.

EEA director Hans Bruyninckx stated that recent decades improvements proved only partially effective in safeguarding the quality of life and longevity of Europeans.

When air pollution costs 400,000 lives a year and cost between €330 billion and €940 billion in 2010 alone, small victory is a big victory. And yet, the EU must demonstrate more ambition in order to revert the trend.

Health NGOs are counting on Member States to take bigger steps than that of the MEPs.

The Environment Ministers Council will reunite on 16 December.

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