European Battle for Air Quality Heats Up as EU Parliament Votes to Toughen Rules
The European Parliament’s ambitious air quality targets set the stage for the European battle on air pollution.

European air quality activists have won a key victory in the European Parliament, which approved tough new air pollution rules that would require countries to meet stricter WHO air quality guidelines by 2035, and allow EU citizens to sue for financial compensation for air pollution-related health damage.  But the draft legislation still faces an uphill battle for approval in the European Commission and European Council for it to become law.  

An air of uncertainty loomed over the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday as lawmakers prepared to vote on new air pollution rules that would set the bar for the European Union’s ambitions to tackle the unsafe air that 98% of its citizens breathe

The vote was seen by many as the latest test of the European Parliament’s commitment to the Green Deal, the EU’s flagship package of policies to fight climate change. 

Echoes of the highly politicized vote on biodiversity restoration in July, which passed by a razor-thin margin after an all-out push by right-wing parties to shoot it down, hung over Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union address before voting began.

“We are facing, with air pollution, a slow-motion pandemic,” Javi López, the centre-left Spanish MEP in charge of negotiating the Parliament’s position, said ahead of the vote. “The administration should fight against air pollution like we were fighting against the pandemic.” 

But the parliamentary vote, advertised as a down-to-the-wire affair, wasn’t even close. The final tally – 363 votes in favour, 226 against and 46 abstentions – was a welcome relief for environmental groups, who had feared that a campaign by the same right-wing coalition that joined forces to take down the biodiversity law would succeed the second time around. 

Key victories in voting marathon

A 40-minute voting marathon on over 130 pages of amendments notched up several key victories for air quality advocates, who had sought to strengthen the Parliament’s position on Europe’s largest environmental health threat

Significantly, an amendment by political conservatives that would have stripped EU citizens of their right to seek financial compensation from companies and governments for health damages caused by unlawful levels of air pollution was defeated.

“It should be a relic of the past that polluting industries continue their delay game to reap profit while tax-payers pay the health costs,” Dr Ebba Malmqvist, professor of environmental health at the University of Lund, said after the vote. 

New provisions were added to address the training and education of healthcare professionals, health inequalities caused by healthcare costs associated with air pollution, and stricter rules for air quality monitoring systems.

Alignment with WHO guideline levels pushed to 2035

Most fundamentally, a provision aligning member states to World Health Organization’s (WHO) air quality guidelines, which are much stricter than EU standards currently in force, passed comfortably, albeit with a five-year delay to 2035 to appease some centrist members of parliament.

Current EU rules, for instance, permit annual average concentrations of PM2.5 to be as high as 25 micrograms/cubic meters of air.  Adherence to WHO guidelines would reduce these concentrations fivefold, to just 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

Although Europe can boast some of the best air quality in the world, air pollution still causes nearly 300,000 premature deaths each year.

Despite improvements in air quality across the European Union since 2005, air pollution remains the largest single environmental health risk for its citizens, causing an estimated 287,000 premature deaths annually.

Almost the entire global population breathes polluted air which can cause premature death, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases, according to the WHO. Air pollution is a silent killer, cutting short nearly 7 million lives globally every year.

“Anything less than alignment with the WHO would not have been acceptable from a health point of view,” said Dr Cale Lawlor, senior policy manager for global public health at the European Public Health Alliance. “To know the science and not act to protect health is not acceptable.” 

Another blow to the crusade against the Green Deal 

Air pollution
Air pollution is the 10th leading cause of death in the European Union.

This vote over the air pollution legislation effectively meant another battle lost by the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest party in the European Parliament and political home of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, which has sought to derail the 2020 European Green Deal, the centrepiece of her legislative legacy.

A campaign by the EPP and far-right allies such as Spain’s populist Vox party to  portray the air pollution law as a car ban – which it is not – failed to gain traction. Provisions in the draft law compelling municipal authorities to consider proven air quality measures such as low-emission zones, speed limits, and low-traffic neighbourhoods passed easily. 

“There’s clearly a strategy to demonise these measures and the way the directive works,” said Zachary Azdad, a policy officer at the advocacy NGO Transport & Environment, who followed the Parliament negotiations. “It’s reassuring to see that this didn’t take and that decisions were made from a more rational point of view.” 

Long and difficult battle through the EU legislative labyrinth

The ambitious targets established in the Parliament’s vote on new air pollution rules set the stage for what will be a long and difficult battle through the EU’s legislative labyrinth. To get over the line and become law, the new legislation must also win the approval of the European Commission and the European Council. 

Environmental groups were not happy with the Parliament’s compromise agreement Wednesday to postpone the deadline for meeting WHO’s air quality guidelines from 2030 to 2035, calling it a “lifeline for dirty cars”. But that target date is nearly certain to be the most ambitious to come out of the EU’s three legislative institutions. 

The European Commission, the EU governing body, had earlier proposed that WHO air quality guidelines only come into force in 2050. The EU Council, comprising the governments of all 27 member states, is widely expected to water down the ambitions set by the Parliament, as it has done with nearly all environmental legislation. The Council is expected to publish its position on the revised air quality rules in December. 

The publication of the EU Council’s position will mark the beginning of inter-institutional negotiations to finalise the law. Negotiations between the three branches of the European Union’s legislature take place behind closed doors, making the process more difficult for civil society to follow and influence. 

“That’s why the Parliament vote was so important,” said Azdad. “We really wanted Parliament to send the signal to the other institutions that the people elected by European citizens want clean air.” 

In April 2024, the Spanish presidency of the European Council ends, and the position rotates to another EU government, setting a tight timeline for lawmakers to finalise the first update to Europe’s air quality directives since 2008. A rightward shift in the balance of power in the Parliament could derail negotiations altogether if the deadline is not met. 

“There’s a risk of the whole file being forgotten after the European elections,” said Azdad. “That’s why we absolutely want it to be adopted before.” 

Image Credits: CC, IQ Air , Mariordo.

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