Brussels issues warnings on air pollution breaches

16 Feb 17

The European Commission has delivered “final warnings” on pollution to a host of the bloc’s major economies.


Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the UK have all been criticised by the commission for continually breaching air pollution limits, which the commission stressed pose a serious health risk.

More than 400,000 people are estimated to die prematurely in the EU as a result of poor air quality caused by nitrogen dioxide (NO2), mostly resulting from road traffic.

Millions more suffer from problems with their heart, lungs or vascular systems linked to pollution, including asthma, heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.

Pollution also results in considerable economic and environmental costs, including increased spending on health, reduced productivity and damage to vegetation and ecosystems.

EU legislation sets limits for air pollutants, including NO2. If these are exceeded, member states are required to adopt and implement measures to bring the situation to an end as soon as possible.

But the commission found “persistent breaches” of NO2 limits in the five nations. Germany was the worst offender in terms of the spread of air pollution, with breaches in more than 28 areas across the country, including Berlin, Munich Hamburg and Köln.

This was followed by France and the UK, with 19 and 16 areas regularly breaching the limit, mainly in major cities including Paris, Lyon, London, Birmingham and Glasgow.

Rome, Milan and Turin were among the 12 areas consistently breaching limits in Italy, while there were three in Spain – Madrid, and two areas spanning Barcelona.

The measures national and local governments could take include efforts to reduce traffic, limit diesel fuel or encourage the switch to electric cars or adapt driving behaviour.

If member states fail to act within two months, the commission warned it may refer them to the European Court of Justice.

Despite their legal obligations at the EU level, the commission noted that air quality standards are being exceeded in 23 out to 28 member states, or 130 cities across Europe.

The commission is currently already in the process of taking legal action on NO2 breaches against 12 member states: Austria; Belgium; the Czech Republic; Denmark; France; Germany; Hungary; Poland; Portugal; Spain; and the UK.

Earlier this month, the European Court of Auditors announced it would undertake an EU-wide audit of measures against air pollution, the single biggest environmental health risk across the bloc.

It is thought the bloc is currently spending at least €2bn – although this is likely to be an underestimate as it doesn’t include all channels of spending – to combat pollution. Auditors will consider whether this is effective.

However, the problem of pollution has a much greater impact beyond Europe. In some cities across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, as well as in Macedonia, the benefits of outdoor exercise are beginning to be outweighed by the cost of breathing dirty air during.

A recent study also found that as many as 3.4 million babies could be being born prematurely every year as a result of of pollution, with sub-Saharan Africa, north Africa and south-east Asia the most affected. 

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