EU Policy. Parliament at odds with member states over pace of action on air pollution 

Michael Probst / AP
Michael Probst / AP Copyright Michael Probst/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Michael Probst/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Marta Pacheco
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Belgium hopes to broker a deal between governments and MEPs on stricter new EU air pollution limits, with an anticipated final round of talks set for 20 February.


Governments and the European Parliament are at odds over how far and how fast to tighten Europe’s air pollution limits, with EU Council presidency holder Belgium hoping to clinch a deal in a fourth round of back-room talks in Brussels next week – probably the last chance to get the legislation over the line before EU elections in June.

The date when new, stricter limits for a range of pollutants should come into force is at the centre of a dispute between EU legislators as they negotiate a proposed revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directive. Governments favour a transition period that could delay implementation until as late as 2040, a document seen by Euronews reveals.

The European Commission proposed in 2022 to revise the bloc’s air legislation, introducing a zero-pollution goal for 2050 and air quality standards for 2030 that are closer – but not in line with – World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. The parliament also agreed this is too soon, but backed 2035 deadline when adopting its negotiating position last September.

The air quality bill requires EU countries to keep the concentrations of specific pollutants in the air, like harmful particulate matter (PM) or nitrogen oxides (NOx), below certain limit values. When these limit values are exceeded, governments need to adopt air quality plans to ensure air quickly is quickly brought in line with the EU standards.

Parliament has indicated that it would consider agreeing to a ten-year phase-in period if the exemption was accompanied by “much stricter conditions” and safeguard measures. Other matters like the duration for drawing up plans, implementation, and updating are also dividing the co-legislators.

The parliament and council also differ on the level of air pollution that should be tolerated in the EU. In the case of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the Council agrees with the Commission’s proposal to reduce the maximum annual average from 25 to 10µg/m³ by 2030. But MEPs are pushing for the bloc to align with the latest World Health Organisation recommendations, which set the maximum at just 5µg/m³.

While the Belgian Presidency says it is mindful of the delicate balance achieved in the initial council mandate, it has told governments that an agreement will only be possible if they are willing to show “some flexibility” in moving towards the parliament’s position.

“The [Belgian] Presidency is aware that these requirements will entail an additional administrative burden for the member states but is also convinced that some concessions will need to be made to the Parliament [about the postponement of deadline and exemptions] in order to preserve the elements that are essential to the Council,” the internal negotiating document reads.

A diplomat from one of the national delegations to the EU suggested a potential compromise. “We would accept the [Belgian] Presidency’s proposal on air quality plans if administrative burden is reduced,” the source told Euronews.

Some governments also want exemptions from meeting the pollution limits for where household income and GDP are below the EU average low-income households and national GDP lower than the EU average, a proposition rejected by the parliament. The Belgian presidency suggests instead adjustments on domestic heating in the low-income zones and provisions allowing a member state to comply by producing plans to meet the pollution thresholds by 2040.

Romania, Latvia, Poland, Malta, Cyprus and Bulgaria “have regretted” the Belgian Presidency’s effort to accommodate parliament’s concerns during the preparatory meeting on Wednesday (February 14) setting the ground for the inter-institutional negotiations in Brussels next week, the diplomatic source said.

Olga Rueda Molina, a policy advisor to the parliament’s lead negotiator on the file, Javi López, told Euronews that a rapprochement was possible. “We are hopeful that we can make progress in the negotiations and address what is the greatest environmental threat to public health: pollution,” she said.

Clean air campaigners are critical of the Council’s stance in the talks. Sophie Perroud, EU policy coordinator at the Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL), criticised the attempt to push through a raft of exemptions, noting it denies the urgency of tackling air pollution.

Reducing emissions or air pollutants in Europe is paramount, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA), which warned this year that 97% of EU citizens were exposed to excess levels of PM2.5, which had been linked to asthma and a range of cardiovascular diseases.

“Sanctioned decade-long delays would result in continued harm to health, that could be preventable, and increasing health inequalities, not to mention the high economic burden of health costs for countries already under economic duress,” Perroud told Euronews. “This cannot be the message the EU is sending to people just before the EU elections.”

Government delegates and the parliamentary negotiating team are due to gather in Brussels next Tuesday (February 20) for a round of talks that Belgium hopes will seal a deal on the air quality legislation before the EU elections in June.

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