Revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directives

In “A European Green Deal”

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In its work programme for 2022, the European Commission announced that it would propose a revision of the EU Ambient Air Quality Directives (Directives 2004/107/EC and 2008/50/EC).

Under the European Green Deal, the EU has set itself the objective of reducing air, water and soil pollution to levels no longer considered harmful to health and natural ecosystems and respecting the boundaries the planet can cope with by 2050 ('EU's zero pollution ambition'). Under the zero-pollution action plan for air, water and soil, tabled on 12 May 2021, the Commission committed to revise the EU's air quality standards to align them more closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) global air quality guidelines. The WHO updated, and tightened, its guidelines in September 2021.

On 26 October 2022, the Commission tabled its proposal for a revision, merging the two EU Ambient Air Quality Directives into a single one. While introducing a zero-pollution objective for air, to be achieved by 2050, the proposed directive would set interim 2030 EU air quality standards that are closer to WHO guidelines. For instance, the annual limit value for PM2.5 would be reduced from 25 µg/m³ to 10 µg/m³ in 2030 (WHO guideline is 5µg/m³). By 31 December 2028 (and every 5 years thereafter), the Commission would assess whether EU standards are still appropriate and whether additional air pollutants have to be covered. The review would evaluate the need to revise the directive to ensure alignment with WHO guidelines and the latest scientific information. The proposal would establish a right for people to be compensated where damage to their health has occurred wholly or partially as a result of a violation of EU air quality rules. The proposed text also seeks to bring more clarity on public information on air quality, access to justice and penalties, and updates rules on air quality monitoring and modelling.

In Parliament, the file was referred to the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI), which appointed Javi López (S&D, Spain) as rapporteur. The ENVI Committee adopted its legislative report on 27 June 2023. It sets stricter 2030 limit and target values for several pollutants, including PM2.5 and PM10, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone. It proposes to make a distinction between the air quality plans required to ensure the attainment of the new air quality standards ('air quality roadmaps') and those required in the event of standard exceedances. The report would require Member States to monitor black carbon, ammonia and mercury in locations where high concentrations of such pollutants are likely to occur (whereas the proposal envisages such monitoring for ultrafine particles alone) and increase the number of related sampling points. There would also be an increase in the number of monitoring supersites at urban background locations. Air quality indices would have to be comparable across all Member States and accompanied by detailed information on the associated health risks for each pollutant. Rules on compensation would be specified. Member States would have to ensure that financing measures for improving air quality are prioritised in the use of revenues from penalties.

The report was put to the vote in the September 2023 plenary session. 363 MEPs voted in favour, 226 against and 46 abstained. Parliament's plenary decided that the stricter limit values recommended by ENVI would need to be attained by 1 January 2035. The limit values proposed by the Commission should be reached by 1 January 2030, as an intermediate step. 

The Council reached a general approach on 9 November 2023. Among other elements, it proposes to maintain the values for benzo(a)pyrene and arsenic, cadmium and nickel as target values (instead of limit values) until 2030. It introduces new reasons to justify postponement of the deadline for attainment of the air quality limit values in certain areas (presence of a high share of low-income households if the Member State concerned has a lower national GDP per capita than the EU average; modelling applications results showing that the limit values cannot be attained within the attainment date). Member States would be able to request a postponement of the deadline for maximum 10 years (until no later than 1 January 2040). The Council further seeks to strengthen provisions on transboundary pollution, and maintain a more flexible approach to modelling. It requires the Commission to review the air quality standards by 2030 and as frequently as necessary after that, to assess whether they need to be updated based on the latest scientific information, whether more air pollutants need to be covered, and whether additional postponement of the deadlines or adjustments to transboundary air pollution provisions should be considered. The Council significantly amends the proposed articles on access to justice, compensation and penalties.  

On 20 February 2024, the co-legislators reached a provisional agreement on the file. The deal includes stricter 2030 standards for several pollutants compared to current rules, notably for PM2.5 and NO2. The Commission will be required to review EU standards by the end of 2030 (and every 5 years thereafter) to assess options for alignment with the WHO guidelines and latest scientific evidence. Member States may request a postponement of the deadline for attaining the air quality limit values by up to 10 years, if specific conditions are met. The co-legislators agreed on air quality roadmaps, and comparable air quality indices, with information regarding impacts on health, including information tailored to sensitive population and vulnerable groups as Parliament wanted. The deal includes new rules on access to justice and compensation.

The agreement was approved by the Permanent Representatives Committee on 8 March, and by the ENVI Committee on 11 March 2024. Parliament formally adopted it on 24 April 2024 by 381 votes to 225 and 17 abstentions.

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Author: Vivienne Halleux, Members' Research Service, legislative-train@europarl.europa.eu

As of 20/05/2024.