Air Pollution Victims Could Sue For Damages Under Proposed New EU Rules
European Union.
The EU is updating its air pollution directive for the first time since 2008. The new laws are expected to take effect in late 2023 or early 2024.

BRUSSELS – European Union citizens suffering from health effects caused by air pollution could soon be entitled to seek financial compensation from polluters under a proposed revision of the EU’s pollution regulations. The  proposal is part of a broader overhaul of EU air pollution laws, expected to be completed in late 2023 or early 2024, said a senior European Commission official Thursday.

The interests of European citizens are already protected by an array of legal umbrellas. Companies can be held liable for misleading consumers in their marketing; airlines are required to compensate customers for cancelled or delayed flights; and breaches of consumer privacy or competition laws frequently result in heavy fines.

But no mechanism exists to protect people from breaches of air pollution limits or pollution from industrial sites like chemical factories, industrial farms or coal plants. And that has to change, said the European Commission’s Veronica Manfredi. 

“If we protect the economic interests of our citizens so well, maybe it is also time to have similar protections for their lungs,” said Manfredi, director of Zero Pollution and Green Cities at the European Commission. “Even just loss of time is recognized by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as damage.”

She was speaking at an event: Cleaner air: Time to capture the benefits, hosted by the European Policy Centre.

Penalties, damages and access to justice

Air pollution
Air pollution is responsible for over 300,000 premature deaths in Europe every year.

The new air pollution rules navigating the EU’s lawmaking labyrinth are the first update to the bloc’s Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD) since 2008. The AAQD sets binding air quality standards for a range of air pollutants harmful to human health such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and ozone which apply to all member states.

The tighter rules proposed by the Commission aim to end the impunity by which polluters across the EU breach air pollution limits. Updated penalties would levy fines proportionate to the financial turnover of companies breaking air quality rules to offset any economic benefit drawn from the breaches.

The Commission proposal is furthermore based on the EU’s “collective redress” model for consumer protection, which allows consumer and public organizations to seek collective settlements on behalf of consumers.

The Representative Actions Directive, which was adopted in 2020 and came into full force across the bloc in June, empowers consumers to seek financial compensation for damages in areas such as data protection, financial services, and air travel. The update to the AAQD would allow individuals to do the same for health damages caused by air pollution. 

“We are envisioning something similar for people that are victims of pollution problems that lead them to health issues,” said Manfredi. “The new provisions entail a clear legal basis for the first time for people whose health has been damaged by air pollution to seek compensation.”

Cost-benefit paradox

Air pollution
The average annual population-weighted a PM2.5 concentration in European countries for 1990 (left) and 2019 (right). The European Environmental Agency estimates 96% of urban EU citizens are exposed to PM2.5 levels above WHO standards.

Europe stands to gain hundreds of billions of euros from cleaner air. EU-wide benefits of meeting the air quality targets set by the Commission are estimated to be between €42 billion and €121 billion anually, according to a new report by the European Policy Center (EPC) published on Thursday. The costs of implementing the rules is less than €6 billion per year.

“It is a paradox that we have a seven-to-one benefit ratio, but then there are still lots of resistance and concerns,” said Stefan Šipka, lead author of the EPC report. “And that is actually the lowest [estimated] ratio.”

Premature deaths from air pollution have fallen by two-thirds from an estimated one million deaths in the 1990s to around 300,000 deaths in the EU region today. Implementing the stricter air quality limits set out by the Commission successfully could reduce that number yet again by over 75%, experts estimate. 

“It is still an absolutely unacceptable number,” said Manfredi. “It puts into tragic perspective even the number of appalling deaths we have experienced during the – after all – just two year COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee has approved the revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directive in June – a major step towards the finish line.

But the directive needs to clear votes in the European Parliament and the EU Council, the body representing EU member states, before it is finalized. 

See the related Health Policy Watch story on a new TDR Global Health Matters podcast here:

Image Credits: Sébastien Bertrand, Daniel Moqvist.

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