The EU Commission exerts pressure on countries failing to tackle air pollution

9 European countries, including Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom – which all still burn coal to generate electricity – were threatened with sanctions for exceeding the established air quality standards. The air pollution was discussed on 30 January, at the meeting of Environment Ministers in Brussels. European Commissioner for Environment, Karmenu Vella, said that the meeting provided an opportunity to these 9 countries to prove that additional adequate steps will be taken to redress the current situation without delay and comply with EU environmental laws. EU air quality limits are currently breached in 130 cities in 23 EU countries, but this meeting was reserved for those who had already received final warnings and were threatened with further legal actions.

Different European cities are already testing various ideas: from moss walls to banning old diesel cars.

After the meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the government will provide additional support to German cities, where the air quality exceeds established standards, and will help to develop specific solutions to cut emissions. On 27 February, Germany’s top administrative court has ruled on that it’s legal for cities to ban diesel cars. The Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig says Germany’s states, cities and communities have the right to impose diesel bans to control air pollution without federal legislation. The first cities that have pledged to reduce the amount of diesel vehicles are Stuttgart and Dusseldorf, where cars that meet Euro-4 emissions standards will likely enact the first bans in the nearest future, and Euro-5 vehicles will be banned from fall 2019. Eco-activists filed similar lawsuits in dozens of German cities, motivating them to protect human rights to clean air and safe environment.

The mayor of Rome, Virginia Raji, said that since 2024 diesel cars will be banned from entering the city center of the Italian capital. The British government has already announced its intention to completely abandon diesel and petrol cars in favor of electric until 2040. Many other big cities in Europe are going to do the same: Copenhagen wants to ban diesel cars already in 2019, and Paris, Madrid and Athens – by 2025.

Poland regularly breached European air quality standards between 2007 and 2015. The European Commission took Poland to court in 2015 over its failure to rein in air pollution, and in the end of February 2017 the European Union’s top court finally found Poland guilty of violating European air quality standards. It did not impose any fines, but if the European Commission finds that Poland does not do enough to comply with the court ruling, it could refer them back to the court, which could then hand out a huge fine.

Despite that Poland is working to meet the EU requirement of drawing 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, it still continuously exceeding the air pollution limits. In 35 out of 46 analyzed areas of Poland, the daily limit of PM10 particles, which are harmful to human health, has been exceeded. Speaking at a press conference after the ruling, Mateusz Morawiecki, the Prime Minister of Poland, said that the fight for clean air was one of the government’s priorities, and that the government would launch a “Stop Smog” programme that will limit the use of coal for heating in private homes, believed to be the main source of air pollution.

But far more radical action is needed to improve the air quality in Poland. On Monday, March 5, air pollution in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, reached a record level in this heating season – 600 μg/m3, which is 11 times higher than the established EU norm.

But there had already been some positive improvements after the meeting in Brussels. Karmenu Vella said on the conference on Monday, March 5, that air pollution in some areas in Bulgaria has been reduced since the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that Bulgaria needed to do more to tackle it. The Bulgarian government also had handed out some €100,000 in fines for illegal burning of wood, which will help to reduce the air pollution in the country.

On 10 April, EU Ministers of Environment met again in the Bulgarian capital city of Sofia to discuss firm actions being put in place to address air pollution across Europe. The EU Commission is currently considering evidence produced by each of the nine named countries as to why the air quality guidelines levels were not met, before taking a further decision on next steps.

Initially this had been expected to be finalised by the end of March, but sources now suggest that the decision is likely to be outlined within the Commissions next infringement cycle – likely to be at the end of April.

Commissioner Vella added: “In many environmental areas, Europe is a global leader. But when it comes to air quality, we fail many of our own citizens. Some of our air quality standards are weaker than the recommended WHO levels.  That is why more needs to be done and more will be done.”

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