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Speech - “Clean air for all - all for clean air”

Commission Européenne - SPEECH/13/1049   09/12/2013

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European Commission

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

“Clean air for all - all for clean air”

Closing Conference on the European Year of Air (Council of Europe)

Strasbourg, 9 December 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen,

“Clean air for all - all for clean air”. This sounds like the slogan of the three musketeers'. Perhaps this should be expected here, in the country of Alexandre Dumas.

Bravo!

The theme of this panel nicely summarises the ‘essentials’ to successfully addressing one of the most important health and environment challenges we face today: …. air pollution.

The success of our work depends not only on a well thought through air policy; as we all know. Policies and legislation alone are not sufficient to succeed. We need concerted action in different (not to say all) sectors, in different policy areas and at all levels. And we need a shared understanding of what needs to be done. We need to avoid inefficiencies and unnecessary duplication of costs.

This is why I strongly welcome this initiative and would like to thank ATMO France for organising this important event, which is also the closing conference for the ‘Year of Air’.

On this note, I would like to take a glance, together with you, at the major events that have marked this ‘Year of Air’:

Already in autumn 2012, results from a Eurobarometer survey on air pollution showed that clean air matters to ordinary people, and that they are very worried about the impact of poor air quality on their health – especially for children and the elderly. We need to address their concerns. It is clear – good air quality is not only important to protect the vulnerable minorities. It is needed to protect us all. Air is essential for our lives. We all have the right to breathe fresh air. We often take it for granted. We consider this as a given. But it is not. Should we not have this enshrined as a fundamental right? Like is access to water?

In December last year, the U.S. government decided to revise its annual air quality standard for fine particles down to 12 micro-grams per cubic meter. This is well below the current EU standard of 25 micro-grams per cubic meter, and it shows that we are actually lagging behind and being less ambitious than other OECD countries. The OECD has issued a warning on air pollution – by 2050 air pollution could become the major environmental health problem worldwide. This shows that it is a global problem.

In March, a high level delegation from China visited the Commission to seek advice on how to tackle the very severe air pollution problems that they face in Beijing and elsewhere. The visit was a sobering reminder of where we would be in the EU today without effective air policy. But it also pointed to the growing market for low emission products and processes. This is no longer limited to OECD countries. As the political leadership in emerging economies become more aware of the importance of addressing air pollution it is turning global. This is an opportunity the EU should seize. The commitment by the Chinese to invest € 160 billion over the next five years in air quality control in Beijing alone is impressive, and we should use our technological leadership to be present there where emission reduction efforts will be taken.

In June, we dedicated our yearly Green Week conference – Europe's largest environmental conference with about 3000 visitors – entirely to air pollution. The conference was a great success, and created a surge of activities both in traditional media and in social media. There is clearly a lot of interest … and concern.

Early this autumn, the World Health Organisation classified air pollution and particulate matter as carcinogenic to humans, based on a thorough scientific review. This followed an earlier WHO announcement that also classified diesel exhausts as carcinogenic.

In September, this year's edition of the European Mobility Week focused on clean air. In the transport sector, we have a strong track record of setting strict emission limits for cars and trucks – but for diesel cars, we still need to ensure that these limits are respected under real driving conditions, and not only in the test laboratories.

And in October, the European Environment Agency launched its yearly report on the status of the air quality in Europe, pointing out that as many as 3 out of 10 EU citizens living in cities are exposed to levels of air pollution that are above EU air quality standards; and that rises to 9 out of 10 citizens exposed to concentrations of levels above the WHO air quality guidelines. These figures speak for themselves; this is clearly not acceptable.

And this brings me to what I hope will be the "jewel in the crown" – the proposal to review our air legislation – which I expect to be adopted by the Commission before the end of this year.

These are just snap-shots of all the air-related activities that have taken place in the past year - many of which have received EU-wide or even global attention. Many events have also taken place at local, regional and national levels, in the form of conferences, workshops, awareness campaigns and innovation initiatives.

Against this backdrop, today's conference is very important, as it will consolidate many of these initiatives, and help raise awareness on air pollution even more. In doing so, it will also help build the necessary political momentum needed to make further progress.

As I just mentioned, the Commission will adopt a new and ambitious air quality package, based on a thorough review of the existing air policy, launched in early 2011. The review was based on almost three years of intensive consultations with stakeholders, a thorough analysis of the latest scientific evidence on air pollution, a full assessment of the pros and cons of the existing EU air policy, and its impact on health and environment, and an in-depth examination of available cost-effective measures.

I am very happy to say that Tonio Borg, European Commissioner for Health, has taken this issue to heart, and we are working together closely to present it jointly.

As I know that you have already heard earlier today about the key findings in the review, I will just highlight a few that are of particular importance:

  1. Air quality is in many ways an environmental success story. The EU air policy that is already in place has clearly been effective.

  2. But air pollution is still the number one environmental cause of death in the EU, with over 400 000 premature deaths in 2010. This is more than 10 times the deaths from traffic accidents, and it has a huge cost to citizens' health and the economy. Total annual external costs were estimated at between €330-940 billion in 2010.

  3. But there are also significant direct impacts on the economy: we are talking about 100 million lost workdays each year, with a direct cost of about €15 billion in lost productivity. Bad air also adds €4 billion to our healthcare costs because of hospitalisation, and our farmers lose €3 billion per year in crop damage due to ozone smog.

  4. Not to mention that 62% of all ecosystems and 71% of protected Natura 2000 areas in the EU are exposed to eutrophication from air pollution.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

The review clearly shows that more progress is both possible and necessary. Based on the outcomes of the air review, the Commission is now working on a number of concrete policy proposals. While some of the details are still under discussion, I can be quite firm on two issues:

  1. First, we intend to work closely with Member States to make sure that existing air quality policy delivers. We need to make sure that all citizens are protected in the same way. Air quality standards already in place must be fully implemented. This is not always the case. We are still talking about the limits from the 90's, before new scientific data confirmed the health impacts of air pollution.

From the Commission side, we can help out by reinforcing capacity, providing advice and facilitating exchange of best practices, and by pointing to funding opportunities, for example from the LIFE+ Programme. Equally, the Commission and Member States must jointly ensure that existing EU source regulation for industry, transport and energy will cut emissions as expected.

  1. And second, in the longer term, we want to put the EU on a clear and credible pathway towards achieving the WHO air quality guidelines, and towards considerably reducing the threat of eutrophication. This will be outlined in a new clean air programme for Europe up to 2030, and backed up by new national emission ceilings.

To deliver on both of these objectives an emission reduction policy is of utmost importance. Our intention is to revise the National Emission Ceilings Directive to bring down pollution emissions in the period up to 2030. This will in turn drive down overall air pollution concentrations across Europe, bringing major health and ecosystem benefits, and opening the path for stricter standards in the ambient air quality Directive at a later stage.

The emission reductions package we intend to present will therefore include:

  1. A new Clean Air Programme for Europe setting out clear policy objectives up to 2030;

  2. A revised National Emission Ceilings Directive to implement reductions up to 2030;

  3. A ratification proposal for the Gothenburg Protocol;

  4. and Action on air pollution from medium scale combustion installations.

The potential for cost-effective gains is huge. The number of premature deaths from air pollution in 2025 compared to 2005 could be halved. This means about 150.000 fewer premature mortalities every year. We can also reduce the areas affected by eutrophication by 50% more than under ‘business as usual’. For society as a whole and the environment this would mean a benefit of at least €45 billion per year, at a cost that is ten times lower. And added to this let's not forget impacts on ecosystem services, whose economic value is difficult, if not impossible to estimate.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have done a lot to improve the quality of air we breathe, but a lot more needs to be done.

Of course, as the theme of this panel clearly points out, managing the air we breathe cannot be done from Brussels alone. It requires concerted action in many sectors and policy areas, and for this we will continue to rely on the support and constructive input from all stakeholders, including those who have participated at this conference. We hope that we can carry on counting on you.

The discussions between Commissioners, in order to ascertain a good level of ambition, are still on-going. We remain confident that we will agree on a strong package. We have a great story to tell. What we are proposing is a package of cost-effective measures, improving productivity across the economy, promoting innovation and creating growth and jobs. The package provides a strong direction to a healthy society. This is a perfect example of what the green economy means.

It is common sense: we wish to be wealthy and healthy and not sick and poor. Difficult to disagree.

Thank you for your attention.


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