Europe’s Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella has warned government ministers from nine EU countries – including the UK – that they will face legal proceedings if breaches of air quality limits continue.
UK environment minister Therese Coffey joined representatives from the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia at a meeting in Brussels this morning to discuss steps being taken to meet legally binding nitrogen dioxide limits.
The UK and other countries have been in breach of the legally binding 40 µg/m3 annual mean target for nitrogen dioxide since 2010.
During the meeting, Mr Vella expressed concern that the limit value continues to be exceeded at locations across the continent, a fact which he claimed is contributing to around 400,000 premature deaths every year.
He also warned that the countries face infringement procedures for exceeding agreed air pollution limits, and asked for details of the steps being taken to comply with the EU air pollution laws.
In a statement following the meeting, the Commissioner said: “I am sure that those present at this morning’s meeting share my frustration that a sense of urgency is not always evident across Member states, and across other Ministries.
“Secondly, I must also stress that this is not just a personal initiative. Today’s meeting was held not only with the full support of President Juncker, but also the full support of 500 million citizens. We are also determined – as a College – to act on this problem, with the seriousness it demands.
“The State of the Union commitment to protecting citizens cannot be illustrated more clearly than by protecting the air people breathe.
“And thirdly, a reminder about the ongoing legal process. The deadlines for meeting the legal obligations have long elapsed.
“And some say, we have waited already too long.
“But we can delay no more. And I have made this very clear to Ministers this morning.â€?
The Commissioner added that there were ‘positive’ exchanges between ministers over the steps being taken to address air pollution, but urged them to ensure that the issue was treated with ‘urgency’.
He stated: “Inaction has consequences. It has consequences for citizens and the polluted air they breathe. Member states have responsibilities. Responsibilities to act. Inaction also has legal consequences for the Member States in question. Ministers were reminded of both these responsibilities as well as the legal consequences.â€?
Arriving at the Commission building in the centre of Brussels for this morning’s meeting, ministers were met by protestors from the environmental campaign group Greenpeace demanding tougher action on air pollution.
The organisation has also criticised Environment Secretary Michael Gove for sending a junior minister to the meeting in his place.
Rosie Rogers, Head of Greenpeace UK’s Clean Air Campaign, said: “It’s not a good look when a government that promised environmental leadership has to be chivvied by Brussels into doing something about illegal air pollution. Michael Gove promised to make cleaning up our cities’ air a top priority but has little to show for it as yet.
“After missing the opportunity in its 25 Year Plan, the Government must use its Clean Air Strategy to take concrete action. Diesel vehicles are a major source of pollution, so the Government should bring forwards the phase-out date by at least a decade to 2030, and fund the roll out of more clean air zones which are shown to be effective in reducing pollution.â€?