Today the Council adopted its negotiating mandate for talks with the European Parliament on a proposal to set EU air quality standards to be achieved by 2030 and to put the EU on a trajectory closer to its zero-pollution vision for air by 2050. It also seeks to align EU air quality standards more closely with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.
The negotiating mandate, which was agreed at Coreper level, sets out the Council’s position for the start of negotiations (‘trilogues’) with the Parliament to shape the final text of the legislation.
Each year, we see around 300 000 premature deaths due to air pollution in Europe. This is unacceptable; we must act now. With today’s agreement, we are setting the basis for cleaner air and a healthier environment in the EU, with improved standards and more effective action to tackle air pollution. This is not just a piece of legislation; it is a testament to our dedication to the well-being of our citizens and our responsibility towards the planet.
Teresa Ribera Rodríguez, acting Spanish third vice-president of the government and minister for the ecological transition and the demographic challenge
Main changes agreed by the Council
The Council’s text strikes a balance between, on the one hand, keeping the Commission proposal’s main ambition of improving air quality standards in the EU and moving closer to realising the 2050 zero-pollution objective and, on the other hand, introducing some flexibility for member states in the implementation of the directive.
Strengthening air quality standards
In addition to setting out air quality provisions to move the EU closer to achieving the zero-pollution objective for air quality by 2050, thus contributing to a toxic-free environment, the new rules set out enhanced EU air quality standards for 2030 in the form of limit and target values that are closer to WHO guidelines. The revised directive covers a host of air-polluting substances, including fine particles and particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), benzene, arsenic, lead and nickel, among others. For instance, the annual limit values for the pollutants with the highest documented impact on human health, PM2.5 and NO2, would be reduced from 25 µg/m³ to 10 µg/m³ and from 40 µg/m³ to 20 µg/m³ respectively (the WHO guideline values are 5 µg/m³ for PM2.5 and 10 µg/m³ for NO2).
The Council’s text adds some flexibility with regard to the attainment of the air quality limit values for areas where compliance with the directive by the deadline would prove unachievable due to site-specific dispersion characteristics, adverse climatic conditions or transboundary contributions. For these reasons, to which the Council added that of a high share of low-income households if the member state in question has a lower national GDP per capita than the EU average and if modelling applications results show that the limit values cannot be attained within the attainment date, member states can request a postponement of the deadline for a maximum of 10 years until no later than 1 January 2040.
Air quality plans and short-term action plans
The text requires member states to establish air quality plans for areas where the levels of pollutants exceed the limit and target values set out in the directive, and to do so no later than three years after those levels have been recorded. The plans must set out appropriate measures to keep the exceedance period as short as possible and contain information such as the geographic location of the area concerned, the origin of the pollution, and the competent authorities responsible for the development and implementation of the plans.
Member states will also be required to set alert or information thresholds for certain air pollutants, to protect the general population and more vulnerable groups from exposure to elevated concentrations of such pollutants. Where there is a risk of those thresholds being exceeded, member states should prepare short-term action plans setting out emergency measures to reduce the immediate risk to human health.
The Council proposes more flexibility with regard to the assessment of ambient air quality, for example that the use of modelling applications as a complement to fixed measurements should not be mandatory in the event of limit values set out in the directive being exceeded. The proposed new directive would also oblige member states to establish at least one monitoring supersite on their territory, based on population and size. These monitoring supersites would combine multiple sampling points to gather long-term data on air pollutants covered by the directive, as well as on air pollutants of emerging concern and other relevant metrics.
The Council’s text calls on the European Commission to review the air quality standards by 2030 and as frequently as necessary thereafter, to assess whether they need to be updated based on the latest scientific information. In its review, the Commission should also consider whether more air pollutants need to be covered, and whether additional postponement of the deadlines or adjustments to transboundary air provisions should be considered. Based on its review, the Commission should then put forward proposals to revise air quality standards, include other pollutants and/or propose further action to be taken at EU level.
Often, air pollution is not limited to an individual member state but spreads across borders. To address the transboundary nature of some pollutants, such as ozone and particulate matter, the Council strengthened the provisions related to transboundary pollution. The new rules require member states to cooperate with each other to identify the sources of air pollution and the measures necessary to address them, and to plan joint activities, such as the preparation of coordinated national air quality plans.
The Council added a provision to allow member states to identify and notify the Commission of exceedances of air quality limits that can be ascribed to sources outside the influence of the member state affected. Such information would then be taken into account by the Commission when assessing the possible postponement of attainment deadlines.
Access to justice and right to compensation
The proposed directive sets out provisions to ensure access to justice for those who have a sufficient interest and want to challenge its implementation, including environmental NGOs. Any judicial review procedure should be fair, timely and not prohibitively expensive.
Under the new rules, member states would have to ensure that people are entitled to claim and obtain compensation where damage to their health has occurred as a result of an intentional or negligent violation of the national rules transposing certain provisions of the directive.
The proposal as amended by the Council also requires member states to establish effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties for those who infringe the measures adopted to implement the directive. Such penalties would have to take into account the severity and duration of the infringement, whether it is recurrent, and the people and environment affected by it.
The Council is now ready to start negotiations with the European Parliament to agree on the final shape of the legislation. Once a provisional agreement has been found, the final text will have to be formally adopted by both institutions.
Despite major improvements in air quality in the EU over the past three decades, air pollution continues to be the number one environmental cause of premature death. It disproportionally affects vulnerable groups such as children, elderly people and people with pre-existing conditions, as well as socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. It also has a negative impact on the environment, causing damage to ecosystems and biodiversity.
To address air pollution, the EU has two ambient air quality directives, dating from 2004 and 2008. The revision of those directives was put forward by the European Commission in October 2022, as an integral part of the EU’s zero pollution action plan in the framework of the European Green Deal. Under this action plan, the Commission committed to revising the EU’s air quality standards to align them more closely with the WHO’s recommendations.
The Commission proposal updates and merges the two existing directives and introduces the zero-pollution objective for air, to be achieved by 2050. The Commission proposal also sets interim 2030 targets that are closer to WHO guidelines. According to the initial proposal, the standards set will be regularly reviewed until 2050, to assess whether they need to be adapted or whether other pollutants also need to be covered. The proposal also aims to strengthen air quality monitoring, modelling and plans.
As the European Parliament adopted its position in September 2023, the co-legislators are expected to start negotiations on the new directive soon.