As part of implementing the Green Deal to turn Europe into a climate-neutral continent by 2050, the European Commission launched the next legislative package on 26 October 2022 to achieve cleaner air and water. However, another priority is to improve the options for compensation in case of infringements.
Each year, 300,000 people living in Europe are dying prematurely because of air pollution, and about 10 million citizens in the EU still have no access to basic sanitation. To reduce these figures, the European Commission has proposed to amend several existing Directives: the Directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe, the Directive concerning urban wastewater treatment and the Directive on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration.
Stricter air pollutant thresholds
The rules on air quality und cleaner air for Europe provide for stricter thresholds for various pollutants from 2030. Hence, the threshold for nitrogen dioxide, which is mainly generated in road transport, shall be reduced from 40 to 20 μg/m3 air. The thresholds for particulate matter shall also be significantly reduced. Other air pollutants, for example ultra-fine particles, have to be measured for the first time, and the public has to be informed accordingly. However, even though these stricter values represent a positive step, they nevertheless fall short of WHO recommendations. The target of zero-pollution has only been envisaged for 2050.
Apart from new thresholds, the proposal contains important innovations with regard to taking legal action in case of infringements. In future, everyone shall have access to jurisdiction. The option to claim compensation for financial loss is stated explicitly if health has been affected by air pollution. Public organisations and NGOs will be granted the right to bring representative action in case of infringements. Even if many of these regulations have already been found by decisions of the European Court of Justice, being enshrined in concrete legal acts is an important step.
New rules also for water
In future, controlling health and environmentally damaging substances in water shall also be improved. Hence, the aim is to improve the thresholds for 16 pollutants and to stipulate controls for 25 new pollutants. Apart from various pesticides, pharmaceuticals including antibiotics and industrial chemicals, this also includes the herbicide glyphosate, which is still frequently used in agriculture.
To improve wastewater treatment, the Commission has also proposed stricter rules for treating urban wastewater. Apart from new monitoring requirements for microplastics, wastewater shall be systematically monitored for viruses, including Covid-19. Apart from that, according to the polluter pays principle, pharmaceutical and cosmetics manufacturers shall be obliged to compensate for the removal of toxic micropollutants, which are released in wastewater from the use of their products. Finally, EU Member States will be obliged to give citizens access to sanitation in public places, in particular with regard to vulnerable and marginalised groups. This provision is a long overdue implementation of a key demand of the European citizens initiative right2water, which was signed by 1.8 million people in 2013.
What will happen next?
The proposed amendments of the Directives will now be negotiated in the European Parliament and in the Council. The aim is to finalise these negotiations before the EU elections in May 2024 to avoid long delays in the legislative process.