What does the new Air Quality Directive approved by the EU Parliament provide?

Tighter limits and strengthened compensation for citizens are arriving

The European Parliament has approved the new Directive on air quality, imposing more stringent limits compared to those proposed by the Commission. With 363 votes in favour, 226 against and 46 abstentions, MEPs set stricter limit values ​​and targets to be achieve by 2035 for various pollutants, including particulate matter (PM2.5, PM10), nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and ozone.

The new Air Quality Directive approved by the EP, it largely incorporates the version launched by the Envi (Environment Commission of the European Parliament) which raises the bar compared to the Commission’s proposal.

In particular, the text of the Environment Commission identifies a final target of limit values ​​for the main polluting agents which aligns with what is recommended by the World Health Organization, as the European Parliament itself explains in the official text of the Air Quality Directive: ” In September 2021, WHO published new guidance on air quality, based on a comprehensive synthesis of scientific evidence on the health effects of air pollution.

The conclusions of these guidelines on air quality highlight in particular the importance of reducing pollution concentrations, showing that this would bring clear benefits for public health and the environment. This directive – states the European Parliament – takes into account the most recent scientific knowledge and the need to fully align Union standards on air quality with the most recent WHO guidelines on air quality, with the aim to achieve the general objectives of action plan for zero pollution”.

Here are the new concentration limits for polluting substances according to the text approved by the EU Parliament (table source:ambientenonsolo.com)

The MEP states that the values ​​proposed by the Commission should constitute an intermediate objective, to be achieved as soon as possible and in any case by 2030 and explains that “The action plan for zero pollution also defines a vision for 2050, in which the Air pollution is reduced to levels no longer considered harmful to health and natural ecosystems. To this end, an ambitious approach to setting current and future EU air quality standards should be pursued by establishing air quality standards for 2035, including intermediate air quality standards for 2030”. The new Air Quality Directive, as approved by the EP, provides for a periodic control by the institutions in order to monitor that the reduction of polluting emissions is constant.

Multiple air quality sampling points

The text does not limit itself to providing for more stringent concentration limits, but invites increase the number of sampling points of air quality. In urban areas there should be at least one super-monitoring site every 2 million inhabitants, useful for representing the exposure of the general urban population. The Commission had proposed one sampling point for every 10 million inhabitants. Also, in places where they are likely to occur high concentrations of ultrafine particles, black carbon, mercury and ammonia, Parliament wants it to be there one sampling point per million inhabitants. Once again, the European Parliament raises the bar compared to the Commission which, for particularly exposed areas, had proposed one sampling point every five million inhabitants and only for ultrafine particles.

Furthermore, according to MEPs, “The Commission should periodically review the scientific data relating to pollutants, their effects on human health and the environment, health inequalities, direct and indirect health costs associated with air pollution, environmental costs and behavioral, fiscal and technological developments. On the basis of that review, the Commission should assess whether the applicable air quality standards are still adequate to achieve the objectives of this Directive. The first review should be carried out by 31.12.2028 to assess whether air quality standards need to be updated based on the latest scientific information. The Commission should periodically evaluate the contribution of Union legislation establishing emission standards for sources of air pollution to the achievement of the air quality standards set by this Directive and, if necessary, propose further Union measures ”

New air quality directive: greater protection for citizens

A particularly interesting aspect of the text approved by the EP concerns transparency and protection of European citizens. First of all, the deputies want harmonize quality indices of the air of the 27 Member States, currently fragmented and difficult to understand. The objective is to obtain comparable, clear and publicly available indices, with hourly updates so that citizens can protect themselves during high levels of air pollution before mandatory alert thresholds are reached.

In this way, Parliament is proposing a very concrete approach to the problem of air pollution which, according to estimates by the EEA (European Environment Agency), causes 300,000 premature deaths per year among European citizens.

According to the amended text, entities will have to provide information on the symptoms associated with peaks in air pollution and on the health risks associated with each pollutant, as well as specific information for vulnerable groups.

In case of violation of the new rules, MEPs propose a strengthened right to compensation.

Specifically, according to the text approved by the European Parliament, “Member States shall ensure that natural persons whose health suffers damage as a result of a breach of this Directive […] due to an omission, a decision, an act or the delay of a decision or an act by the competent authorities are entitled to compensation under this Article.” The new Air Quality Directive also requires states to allow non-governmental organizations promoting the protection of human health or the environment to represent individuals and bring class actions for compensation.

Finally, the right to enhanced compensation is also based on the presumption of causality: “If a claim for compensation is supported by evidence, including relevant scientific data, from which it can be presumed that the violation referred to in paragraph 1 caused the damage suffered by that person or contributed to its occurrence, the causal link between the violation and the occurrence of the damage is presumed,” the MEPs write.

Member States should also establish guidelines contingency plans in cases where concentrations exceed the limit values.

Finally, according to the provisions of the EU Parliament, all member states must prepare regulations roadmaps for air quality with short- and long-term actions to comply with the new limit values.

The legislative process will continue with the pronouncement of the European Council, in which the representatives of the 27 governments of the member states will express their opinions.