Legislative Framework

In 2021, the European Commission unveiled a zero pollution goal for the EU by 2050, targeting the reduction of air, water, and soil pollution to safe levels. This initiative, part of the European Green Deal, was set in motion to align with the WHO's 2021 air quality guidelines.In October 2022, the Commission proposed an update to the EU's existing air quality regulations, aiming to merge and amend the current ambient air quality directives (2004/107/EC and 2008/50/EC).

This revision primarily aims to establish more stringent binding limits for air pollutants by 2030 and outline provisions that aid in achieving the zero pollution objective by 2050.The proposed directive seeks to harmonize air quality standards with the 2021 WHO recommendations based on the latest scientific research on air pollution's health impacts. By setting stricter standards for 2030 as an interim measure toward the 2050 zero pollution goal, these updated regulations would encompass emission limits, average exposure reduction requirements, and alert thresholds. For instance, the annual limit value for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), a major contributor to early deaths in Europe, would drop from 25 µg/m³ to 10 µg/m³ (compared to the WHO guideline value of 5 µg/m³).

These proposed changes are anticipated to significantly decrease premature deaths and air pollution-related illnesses. It is projected that PM2.5-related premature deaths could decline by 75% within a decade.The proposal necessitates regular Commission reviews of scientific evidence to ensure the effectiveness of the revised air quality standards in safeguarding human health.

The Council agreed its negotiating position on the proposal in November 2023. The European Parliament adopted its position in September 2023. The Council’s text strikes a balance between, on the one hand, keeping the Commission proposal’s main ambition of improving air quality standards in the EU and moving closer to realising the 2050 zero-pollution objective and, on the other hand, introducing some flexibility for member states in the implementation of the directive. The updated directive covers a wide array of air-polluting substances, including fine particles like PM2.5 and PM10, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), benzene, arsenic, lead, nickel, among others. For instance, the annual limit values for the most impactful pollutants on human health, PM2.5 and NO2, would decrease from 25 µg/m³ to 10 µg/m³ and from 40 µg/m³ to 20 µg/m³ respectively (compared to WHO guideline values of 5 µg/m³ for PM2.5 and 10 µg/m³ for NO2).

The Council's proposal introduces flexibility regarding meeting air quality limits, especially in areas where compliance by the deadline might be unattainable due to specific dispersion characteristics, adverse climate conditions, or contributions from neighboring regions. Additionally, the Council emphasized the challenges faced by regions with a high percentage of low-income households in meeting these standards. In such cases, if a member state has a lower national GDP per capita than the EU average and modeling indicates that achieving the limit values is unfeasible by the deadline, these states can request an extension of up to 10 years until no later than January 1, 2040.

Negotiations between the co-legislators will take place to agree on the final text of the law.

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