It's primarily the responsibility of individual countries, but critics say the European Commission could do more to make sure they keep to agreed targets on dirty air.
More than three-quarters of EU countries are exceeding agreed pollution limits but Brussels is failing to punish them, data reveals.
The European Commission (EC) has told 20 of the bloc’s 28 countries to clean up their act by launching ‘infringement proceedings’.
The action can see countries taken to the EU’s highest court in a bid to get them to adhere to dirty air targets.
Brussels has 30 cases open against member states but has only ever concluded one – against Bulgaria.
Many of the proceedings have been dragging on for several years, including at least two for around four years, according to documents seen by Euronews.
Air pollution causes more than 500,000 early deaths in Europe each year and critics say EU chiefs must move quicker to protect citizens.
The commission – which is organising a clean air forum in Paris on November 16th and 17th – insists it is not delaying infringement proceedings but says there is a procedure to follow.
“Air quality rules were introduced many years ago, but too many citizens are still exposed to illegally high and harmful concentrations of pollutants,” said Ugo Taddei, a lawyer on clean air from environmental NGO Client Earth.
“Having good legislation in place is only the first step, but then it is very important to enforce the existing rules.
“This is also the reason why Client Earth decided to start using litigation strategically to fill such enforcement gap in air quality issues.
“The problem with the infringement proceedings, apart from the time needed to follow all the steps required under the EU treaties, is one of resources. The commission has limited capacities to bring infringement actions, so it need to prioritise cases.”
Margherita Tolotto, air pollution policy officer at the European Environment Bureau, said: “It’s a sensitive and urgent public health issue so the European Commission should not be afraid to take the necessary action to protect people’s health.
“Once it’s clear that member states are failing, action needs to be quicker.
“National governments are not doing enough, but the European Commission is not reacting fast enough either.”
Karmenu Vella, EU commissioner for the environment, said it cost the bloc’s economy 20 billion euros a year to cope with air pollution.
He told Euronews: “The European Commission uses both the carrot and the stick. We encourage member states, we support member states.
“Obviously we have rules and regulations. But on the other hand we use the sticks when we see that member states are not delivering.
“The idea is not to keep coming up with infringements. But the idea is to help these cities – because mostly air pollution is in capital cities – to cope with this problem.
“The infringements are taken very, very seriously and it’s something that is ongoing, not just discussions but also action.
“There have been cases where the infringements have been taken up at a higher level and it’s something we are continuously pushing for.”
Vella’s comments come as the EC published proposals aimed at reducing vehicles’ carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.
All but one of the EC’s 30 infringement cases are for exceeding limits on nitrogen dioxide and PM10 dust particles – pollutants that are more prevalent in diesel than petrol fumes.
Last month it emerged EU countries paid out €21 billion in subsidies for diesel – despite exhaust fumes from the fuel being considered a major cancer risk.