A Europe that protects: Clean air for all

September 24, 2018


By Karmenu Vella

Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries at the European Commission


Commissioner Vella speaks at the Clean Air Forum in Paris, November 2017

IMAGE: European Union

All around the globe, air pollution is a constant threat. Often it’s invisible, and the costs are hidden too, but there is no doubting the reality of its effects.


According to the WHO, 9 out of 10 people on the planet regularly inhale high levels of pollutants. Here in the EU, air pollution still accounts for 400 000 premature deaths per year, and it brings chronic and serious diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular problems and lung cancer. Society pays an exorbitant price for this polluted air – around €24 billion per year in the EU, not counting the impact of illness and premature death, and ignoring the impact on nature.


In Europe the picture is improving, and EU air quality legislation has played a central role in delivering these changes. Common standards and targets, and pooling resources and expertise have all brought substantial progress. All monitored air pollutant emissions have decreased steadily in recent decades, with sulphur oxide emissions going down by as much as 70% since 2000.





The European Environment Agency's European Air Quality Index allows users to understand more about air quality where they live. Displaying up-to-the-minute data for the whole of Europe, users can gain new insights into the air quality of individual countries, regions and cities.

IMAGE: The European Environment Agency


Member States are working on new National Air Pollution Control Programmes to be submitted to the Commission by April next year, and the monitoring network is being extended and improved to also cover check-ups on the impacts on ecosystems.


But although we know more than ever about the problems and the solutions, air quality limit values are still being exceeded. As Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo noted at the Clean Air Forum I convened last year, change is hard, and there is a constant temptation to delay. Citizens worry about scaremongering, about the costs of changing their car or boiler, and about the knock-on costs of new technologies for society as a whole.


The problems, and the solutions, are often to be found in urban areas. We’ve seen how low-emission zones inside cities can solve many of these air quality problems, but we also know that such measures – if not phased in smoothly or communicated well – can cause concern, as citizens worry about losing comfort or mobility. But those concerns need careful consideration. A child with a respiratory illness will receive scant comfort from a promise that her air will be clean enough to breathe in fifteen years’ time.


Success depends on an adequate contribution from all. That usually implies reducing emissions from a range of sectors, including transport, energy, industry and agriculture. It means more integrated policy-making, with a view to not only meeting the clean air challenge but also improving mobility, and delivering better systems to deliver on climate and energy objectives as well.


Sometimes that wake-up call needs to come from Europe. When Member States repeatedly fail to meet their commitments under EU law, the Commission will intervene. A failure to protect citizens from dangerous exposure can culminate in a referral to the Court of Justice, with the looming possibility of fines. At the time of writing, the Commission has infringement cases open at various stages against 20 Member States for shortcomings regarding air pollution – in some cases, for limit values that have been exceeded for over a decade.


EU legislation is mature, it undergoes constant improvements, and a thorough evaluation of the main air quality framework is now being undertaken. But if the laws are not respected and properly implemented, they will not deliver the promised results. The price of failure is paid by citizens and their environment, and that’s why the Commission continues to intervene.


Very often, change comes down to political courage.






Commissioner Vella sits with the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo at the Clean Air Forum held in Paris on the 16-17 November 2017

IMAGE: European Union

Many of Europe’s cities are making the necessary changes, with constructive solutions that improve air quality without curbing mobility. At the Clean Air Forum, participants saw public authorities in cities like Rotterdam and London combining with local partners to provide information and greater incentives for using public transport. They saw financial support in regions like Małopolska province in Poland, for citizens who want to upgrade old-fashioned boilers. And they saw the beneficial effects of measures like Stuttgart’s temporary cap on the use of wood-burning stoves during local episodes of poor air quality.


None of these measures will suffice on their own, and they need to be part of a comprehensive package. But they do indicate serious efforts to protect the life and health of citizens, without disproportionate cost. They show that change is possible, and that it doesn’t need to be heavy-handed or unduly restrictive.


Poor air quality is reducing quality of life around Europe, at a tremendous cost to the economy. But the solutions are ready and waiting. It’s time to scale them up and implement them across the EU to the benefit of the half a billion European citizens.


What, I wonder, are we waiting for?


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