Clean air for Europe: ‘a cord of many strands’


While air quality in Europe has improved over time, air pollution is still responsible for over 400 000 premature deaths in the EU every year, making it the leading environmental cause of premature death in Europe. There is a significant compliance gap between the air-quality standards agreed by the Member States and current levels of air pollution in Europe. Under the presidency of Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission has taken a number of actions aimed at closing this gap.

The European Union has a uniform legislative regime for tackling air pollution, but the ways and extent to which that is implemented varies greatly between Member States. Today, significant parts of the EU still experience levels of pollution that compromise the health of citizens and ecosystems. In his 2016 State of the Union address, President Juncker called Europe ‘a cord of many strands’, adding, ‘it only works when we are all pulling in the same direction’. 

The 2004 and 2008 Ambient Air Quality Directives provide the current framework for air quality in the EU through legally binding limit values for concentrations of major air pollutants. Thanks to joint efforts by the Commission and national, regional and local authorities, air quality has improved in the EU in recent decades. However, 20 of the 28 Member States are still exceeding the agreed limit values for air pollution.

In 2013, the European Commission adopted a Clean Air Policy Package which included a new Clean Air Programme for Europe that set objectives up to 2030. It also put forward proposals for a revised National Emission Ceilings Directive (adopted in 2016) as well as for a new Directive to reduce pollution from medium-sized combustion installations (adopted in 2015). 

A duty to protect

‘Our first responsibility as the Commission is to the millions of Europeans – young and old, sick and healthy – who suffer from poor air quality,’ said Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, speaking at an air quality summit in January 2018. Ministers from nine Member States were invited to the event to address exceedances of air quality standards by their territories.

‘This step is at the end of a long, some would say too long, period of offers to help, advice given, and warnings made,’ added the Commissioner. Of the nine Member States present, the Commission found that six did not present credible, effective and timely measures to reduce pollution in accordance with EU law. Commissioner Vella made it clear that there would be legal consequences for failure to make urgent and effective changes.

In May 2018, the Communication, ‘A Europe that protects: Clean air for all’, outlined measures to fight air pollution. It emphasised the need to step up cooperation with Member States by engaging further with relevant authorities in the ‘Clean Air Dialogues’, and to improve Member State action, including using EU funding to improve air quality. 

Our first responsibility as the Commission is to the millions of Europeans – young and old, sick and healthy – who suffer from poor air quality.

Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Council

Air quality policy in the EU rests on three main pillars: air quality standards; national emission reduction targets; and emission standards for key sources of pollution. The Commission reiterated the importance of cooperation, citing the EU Urban Agenda, and the amended vehicle emission rules, which ensure that air pollutant emissions are now measured under real driving conditions.

At the same time, several Member States were referred to the EU Court of Justice for persistently exceeding pollutant limits, while letters of formal notice were issued to others on the grounds that they had disregarded EU vehicle-type approval rules. 

Pillars of change 

In line with the priorities emphasised in ‘A Europe that protects’, the Commission has undertaken a number of actions aimed at enhancing coordination across governance levels. The Clean Air Forum in November 2017 was just one such action. Hosted by Commissioner Vella and the Mayor of Paris, the Forum provided a basis for structured dialogues, helping to identify effective solutions and facilitate the implementation of European, national and local air policies with a view to supporting Member States to achieve acceptable air-quality standards. A second Clean Air Forum will take place on 28-29 November 2019.

The Commission has also initiated intensive discussions with Member States through the Environmental Implementation Review and Clean Air Dialogues. To date, it has engaged in dialogues with Ireland, Luxembourg, Hungary, Spain, Czechia and Slovakia, with further Clean Air Dialogues being planned this year. 

What next?

The Commission is now conducting a fitness check for the existing Ambient Air Quality Directives to evaluate their relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, coherence and EU added value. This evaluation has already featured an active consultation to solicit the views and opinions of stakeholders, including an open online public consultation, a Green Week 2018 session to provide a city-level perspective, and two stakeholder workshops (in June 2018 and January 2019).

The findings of the fitness check will inform further reflections on whether the Directives are fit for purpose, notably to protect Europe’s citizens from poor air quality.

Find out more

Learn more about the Air Quality Directives fitness check here.