As press reports across Europe have indicated, I have invited a number of Environment Ministers to come to Brussels on Tuesday, 30 January, to discuss air quality. This blog sets out the reasons why.

 

This European Commission rightly announced itself as different, political, and a 'last-chance' Commission. As President Juncker stated in 2014; "Either we succeed in bringing the European citizens closer to Europe, or we will fail".

There is no better way to bring citizens closer than by making their protection our priority.

Thankfully, this Commission prioritises action. In the State of the Union address of 2016 our President said that he wanted a Europe that protects. This is not just in terms of security. Nor is it meant in just economic terms.  It also means protecting a basic quality of life.

The majority of people in European cities are exposed to poor air quality. The impact on their lives, not to mention quality of life, is shocking. Every year, more than 400,000 Europeans die prematurely as a consequence of poor air quality. Our job is simple. It is to help reduce and ultimately do away with these numbers. To do this effectively we need two things. One, we need the Member States to comply with the emission limits, which they have agreed to and which guarantee citizen's health. Two, where the former is not the case, we need to take measures that compel action. Citizens deserve nothing less.

It is clear that the agreed air quality limits for several key pollutants had to be met already many years ago. It is also clear that the measures currently in place or planned by the Member States are not enough to meet the agreed limits without delay.

That is why, on 30 January, we have called Environment Ministers from Germany, France, Italy, Spain,  United Kingdom,  Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to a meeting here in Brussels.

From asthma and heart disease to lung cancer, poor air quality has triggered chronic health conditions in millions of Europeans. And it’s a heavy economic burden - costing us well over €20 billion a year.

Understandably, it is the improvements, not the process, that interests Europeans. It is no use telling the parent of a 7 year old child with chronic bronchitis that things will improve by 2030.  Much less telling the daughter of a 70 year old woman with COPD that the air quality will be better in 10 years' time.

And the European Union has been supporting these improvements and using all available instruments to protect European citizens.

 

EU-funds are available to tackle air pollution. New rules allow tackling pollution at source. This Commission has managed the adoption of stricter limits on the five main pollutants in Europe through the revised National Emissions Ceilings Directive. This Commission has also managed the adoption of new emission standards for medium combustion plants as well as emission limits for large combustion plants, such as power plants.

Transport is another good example. In November of 2017, the Commission adopted a second phase of measures to deliver Low Emission Mobility.

The new, lower targets for CO2 vehicle emissions, and the incentives for zero and low emission vehicles will drive the market towards cleaner options. Zero and low emission cars mean less CO2, but also less air pollution. And our proposals cover not only cars, but also smaller vans that are so present in our cities. I believe that they will have a major impact on reducing urban air pollution.

However, this is not enough. Effective and timely measures by our Member States are also required. And such measures exist in a number of Member States. But where such measures are not taken for several years, the Commission cannot sit by. In such cases, legal action against some of our Member States may be the only way forward.

And in this case, legal actions are already underway against a number of Member States. So the European Commission is doing its bit. But we cannot - and should not - act alone. We count on businesses, municipalities, regions, and Member States to take the right steps in this direction too.

We need to create the right incentives in our transport and urban planning policies, in energy and agricultural policies, in our buildings and in many other policy areas at many levels.

Our meeting on 30 January is about making sure that such or other effective measures are taken and implemented. I will chair this meeting. I trust that the Environment Ministers will be 'on the same page'. Our experts will be on hand to provide advice and share what has worked well elsewhere.

But one participant will not be in the room. The most important one. You.  The millions of Europeans who live in our towns and cities. The millions who suffer from poor air quality.

The most effective way to make sure your voice is heard is to have strong backing. That means that when I say to Member States, on your behalf, that more needs to be done, your voice has real strength.

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