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Speech - "If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while counting your money"

European Commission - SPEECH/13/822   15/10/2013

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European Commission

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

"If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while counting your money"

Launch of the EEA's Report on Air Quality 2013

Brussels, 15 October 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Distinguished guests,

It is a pleasure to be here today. I wish to thank the Environment Agency and the European Policy Centre for organising this event. It is again very timely. I would like to use it as a kind of curtain raiser for the work we are doing to deliver better air quality in November this year.

I would like to share with you a story of Minamata, a place I visited last week. It is a story of thousands of people living beside a beautiful fishing bay who got mercury poisoning from a company operating nearby. 1,700 people died, some 4000 were heavily affected. It happened 70 years ago but there are still the remains of pollution in people. They are socially excluded as the disease is transferred from generation to generation. So, if anyone wishes to put business interests above the public interest, I will tell him this sad story of Minamata.

Hans' presentation and the EEA's Air Quality Report are powerful reminders of the scale of the challenges we are facing.

So are citizens' surveys like the Eurobarometer, which show that air quality is a major concern for citizens throughout Europe. People are worried about the impact of poor air quality on their health, especially the health of our children and other vulnerable people. And they are also worried that so many of the natural areas which they enjoy and have worked to restore are badly affected by air pollution.

And we all agree.

Our review analysis confirms that air pollution is the number one environmental cause of death in the EU, with over 400 000 premature deaths in 2010. More than 10 times the deaths from traffic accidents! This is a huge cost to citizens' health and the economy. The external costs were between €330-940 billion per year in 2010. Among these are significant direct impacts on the economy: 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.

Over the last 2 years, the Commission has been working intensively with all parties on what needs to be done with these challenges. What has come out of our collective work on this? Let me highlight two key issues.

The first is the need to actually deliver on the air quality targets we currently have. The joint implementation pilot project we conducted with the Agency – the so-called 'Cities Pilot' – helped identify the key issues. Member States must take their responsibilities seriously, but at EU level we can support air quality assessment and management in two ways – by reinforcing capacity and through funding. On the capacity side, we will build on the Pilot's success in sharing best practice, by establishing an urban air quality network to share problems and solutions and by harnessing the resources of the Information and Governance pillar of the new LIFE regulation.

LIFE will also support a series of large scale integrated projects designed to improve air quality compliance and leverage access to other funding sources. I also wish to see cities and regions maximising the use of EU funds to promote fuel switching in those areas where domestic solid fuel is still a major problem, and new mobility initiatives to reduce transport impacts. Much of the structural funds go unused, even though areas with the biggest air quality problems often have the most preferential access, with co-funding requirements as low as 15%.

The second key issue is the need to move much closer to the EU long term air quality objective – of levels of air quality that do not give rise to significant negative impacts on human health and the environment.

For human health this means that air pollution must be below the levels which the WHO have indicated as safe, and the EEA report shows that, even with full compliance, we would still be far from achieving this. Likewise, major eutrophication impacts across Europe will remain, with very little improvement beyond 2020.

My main objective is thus to put the EU on a clear pathway towards achieving the WHO guidelines by setting a programme of action up to 2030. For 2020, the emission reduction commitments have already been agreed under the Gothenburg Protocol, and we would maintain this international position. Whether we like it or not, they are perhaps not as ambitious as we would like it to be. This is why for 2025; I would like to see much more substantial mandatory emission reduction targets based on the technology that is proven today, in 2013, and the inevitable structural changes that our economies will have to undertake.

The 2030 reductions should be based on a realistic reduction to achieve broad compliance with the WHO guidelines in 2050 at the latest. This may prove challenging but is achievable given reasonable assumptions on technology learning and structural changes driven by decarbonisation for instance.

To deliver on these targets an emission reduction policy is of utmost importance. The EEA has – rightly – focused today on ambient air quality across the EU. Reducing emissions that actually cause the high air pollution concentrations across Europe is a key step towards achieving WHO limits. The air policy review showed that policy should focus on achieving compliance with existing air quality standards, and on using a revised NEC Directive to bring down pollution emissions in the period to 2030. Those emission reductions will in turn drive down overall air pollution concentrations across Europe, bringing major health and ecosystem benefits.

The emission reductions package I intend to present will thus comprise:

  • a revised National Emission Ceilings directive to implement reductions up to 2030 together with reinforcement of existing legislation such as the Industrial Emissions Directive, Eco-design and Non-Road Mobile Machinery;

  • ratification of the Gothenburg Protocol; and

  • action on air pollution from medium scale combustion installations.

If adopted, the number of premature deaths could be reduced by about an additional third over the baseline, and the areas affected by eutrophication by another 50%. The estimated benefits for the economy, citizens and the environment would amount to nearly € 45 billion per year with cost representing only a tenth of it based on the most conservative estimation of the value of human life.

New opportunities are also opening up in the rapidly expanding global markets for abatement technology and services. The EU can gain a competitive advantage and exploit opportunities by focusing research and development on resource-efficient and less polluting technologies that other countries will eventually need to adopt. I was in China in July and most of the funding in the future will be channelled towards cleaner technologies. This political leadership cannot afford leaving air pollution unchecked. This opens up huge opportunities for our emission control industry.

Finally, I would like to be clear about one thing: the Ambient Air Quality Directive remains an important tool to ensure that citizens enjoy the same protection everywhere. We are not shelving it. It will be kept under review, with a view to revision once the NECD has set overall air pollution on the right downwards track.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Air quality is in many ways an environmental success story. EU air policy already in place has clearly worked, and it has been effective. .

The air policy package I will present in a few weeks will set out a clear strategy, including new binding emission ceilings and targeted source control measures with the target years 2020, 2025 and 2030. It will create a roadmap for how we can live longer, become healthier, and protect our most fragile ecosystems better. Effective air policy is in fact about creating a better society for all.

Of course, I cannot achieve this alone. Managing the air we breathe cannot be done from Brussels. It requires concerted action in many sectors and policy areas and I will rely on the support and constructive input from all stakeholders. Let us start this dialogue already today. I look forward to your comments and questions. By the way, I am also researcher by training. And what I see for air quality unlike in other areas, there is a clear recognition of the scientific community about the correlation between the pollution and the impacts.

Let me finish with an excellent quote I went through recently from Professor Guy McPherson: "if you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while counting your money".

I would like to add to this: let's save money and afford a fresh breath of air!

Thank you.

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