Ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe

Air pollution is caused by the emission to the atmosphere of certain substances which, alone or through chemical reaction, can damage human health and/or the environment. Air pollution is both a local and a transboundary problem as emissions from one country can travel large distances in the atmosphere and cause adverse effects in other countries. The single pollutants causing most damage to ecosystems, human health and materials are nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2), ammonia (NH3), ground level ozone and airborne fine dust, known as particulate matter (PM). Ground-level ozone and particulate matter are the pollutants that cause most damage to human health. Ozone is not emitted directly but is formed through the reaction of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunshine. Fine dust can be emitted directly to the air (primary particles) or can be formed in the atmosphere by certain gases (secondary particles) such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ammonia. What harmful impact does air pollution have?

Air pollution has impacts on human health ranging from minor effects on the respiratory system to reduced lung function, asthma, chronic bronchitis and reduced life expectancy. Air pollution in the European Union, notably from fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone, causes the premature death of almost 370,000 citizens every year, reducing average life expectancy by an average of 9 months. There are a number of EU laws that regulate air pollution: the Air Quality Framework Directive and its four daughter directives. These laws set concentration limit values or target values for a range of air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (PM10), carbon monoxide, ozone, benzene, lead, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons. These laws require the monitoring of a number of air pollutants. Why is a new air quality directive needed and what are its main elements? The Thematic strategy on air pollution emphasised the need to introduce new objectives for fine particles PM2.5. Experience with the implementation of regulations on other pollutants - such as particulate matter PM10 and nitrogen dioxide - has shown how important greater flexibility is in achieving environmental standards. By merging and streamlining 4 directives and a Council decision in a single legal text and modernising reporting provisions, the proposal is in line with the Commission's initiative on better regulation. The three main elements of the EC proposal consist in maintaining the existing limit and target values for 12 regulated pollutants while setting new objectives for PM2.5.

The first objective is an annual PM2.5 target value of 25 micrograms/m3, to be attained where possible in 2010, and a limit value set at the same level, to be attained everywhere by 2015. These will ensure that EU citizens are not excessively exposed to fine particles. The second objective is an exposure reduction target which requires that average concentrations in urban background areas be reduced by 20% between 2010 and 2020. Urban background concentrations are considered to be most representative of the population exposure. The exposure reduction target will trigger cost-effective measures delivering the objectives of the thematic strategy. The proposal also introduces flexibility in implementation. If a Member State can demonstrate that it is taking all appropriate measures in a specific zone, it could request, under conditions to be assessed by the Commission, extending the time the limit values are applied in the zone. The final agreement between the Council and European Parliament maintains all the main elements of the original Commission proposal. It introduces a number of minor changes, such as modifying PM2.5 exposure concentrations into a sliding scale with smaller reduction targets for Member States with low or medium exposure and higher targets for those with high average exposure in 2010. It also introduces a new legally binding PM2.5 exposure concentration obligation based on average exposure. All Member States will have to ensure that their national average exposure is below 20 micrograms/m3 for the 3-year average 2013/14/15. Are any changes foreseen in the implementation of air quality legislation?

The EC will continue to disseminate best practice when it comes to implementing ambient air quality legislation, and will continue to host workshops and develop guidance for Member States, working jointly with the Member States under the umbrella of the committee established under the directive to facilitate effective pollution abatement where needed. The EC will also institute infringement proceedings against Member States where legislation is not correctly implemented according to the Treaty. PM10 limit values are currently being exceeded in more than 370 zones. After the new Directive enters into force, the Commission will allow a certain 'grace' period of several months when the Member States can apply for the time extensions for the specific zones.

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