In the European Union, one in eight deaths is linked to environmental pollution: air pollution alone means more than 300,000 Europeans die prematurely each year. In a debate with Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU regions and cities underlined their crucial role in implementing pollution-relevant laws, policies and programmes, and pointed out that the costs of an ambitious policy are far outweighed by the benefits for the economy, nature, climate and particularly health.
Revising the EU legislation on ambient air quality and urban wastewater treatment is a key step on the European Commission's zero-pollution agenda, which aims at reducing air, water and soil pollution to levels no longer considered harmful to health and natural ecosystems by 2050. The European Committee of the Regions adopted on 5 July two opinions on these important legislative initiatives.
Vasco Alves Cordeiro, President of the European Committee of the Regions, said in the context of the debate: "The exchange with Commissioner Sinkevičius today and the examples shared by the CoR members proves once more: cities and regions want to make the zero pollution ambition a reality on the ground. Air pollution and urban wastewater treatment are challenges that affect our regions differently, but we are united in pushing forward the EU's sustainability agenda. This debate was also important because it places the well-being of our citizens and their livelihoods in the spotlight. Water scarcity, rising temperatures and the health risks caused by fossil fuels are being addressed on the local level, and clear policy frameworks on the European level help us to make the change to a more sustainable environment."
Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, pointed out in his intervention that the European Commission's Zero Pollution Action Plan recognises the crucial role of local and regional authorities in the battle for clear air, soil and water. He added that the new standards for air quality proposed by the European Commission are "ambitious but also achievable by 2030", and underlined that the revision of the urban wastewater treatment directive comes at a crucial moment when Europe is facing a water crisis with draughts, floods and water pollution.
Rafał Trzaskowski (PL/EPP), Chair of the CoR's Commission for Environment, Climate Change and Energy (ENVE) and Mayor of Warsaw, said: "The Zero Pollution Action Plan aims to tackle pollution comprehensively across different sectors. Cities and regions are at the forefront of addressing pollution and environmental challenges, as they have direct responsibility for managing water resources and wastewater treatment facilities, as well as the possibility to implement strategies to improve air quality. However, an effective implementation of the Zero Pollution ambition needs adequate resources, technical support and funding. I make an appeal, once again, to grant direct funds to local and regional authorities."
While the CoR supports the limit values for air quality proposed by the European Commission for 2030, it urges for full and binding alignment with the science-based World Health Organization (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines by 2035, so as to protect citizens' health and to contribute to achieving the zero-pollution objective for 2050. At the same time, it acknowledges that some areas encounter specific difficulties, such as those linked to their geography or climate, and welcomes the European Commission's proposal providing for additional time to comply with air quality standards in those areas. However, the opinion regrets the general lack of specifically targeted EU funding for air quality, pointing out that cities and regions will need both financial and technical support to improve air quality standards. It also points out that air pollution is a phenomenon that crosses borders and thus needs to be addressed at the source and in close cooperation with all levels of governance, and that local and regional authorities must be consulted when preparing air quality plans.
Rapporteur Una Power (IE/The Greens), Member of Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, said: “We can no longer tolerate more than 300,000 annual premature deaths in the EU and the health consequences caused by air pollution, which disproportionately affect more vulnerable and lower income citizens. Further action is needed to align the EU legislation with the 2021 World Health Organization guidelines, and local and regional authorities are at the heart of realising this ambition. Tackling air pollution brings enormous benefits to climate, biodiversity, and energy savings and independence. So far, inaction has cost us much more than action, so let's put the money where it makes sense.”
Regarding the revision of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive, regions and cities underline that the revised framework must be risk-based, goal-oriented and flexible enough to account for local and regional differences within and among Member States. For instance, the definition of an agglomeration, where the concentration of population is high enough to require centralised urban wastewater treatment, should be established at Member State level based on regional and local characteristics and guidelines provided by the Commission, and alternative individual and decentralised solutions should not be subject to same requirements especially regarding tertiary treatment. The opinion warns that a one-size-fits-all approach could lead to disproportionate costs in relation to environmental benefits, especially in small municipalities located in sparsely populated areas and regarding the requirements on nitrogen removal in areas with cold climate. It also stresses that the Extended Producer Responsibility scheme, control at source and the Polluter Pays Principle are prerequisites for the directive's success.
Rapporteur Åsa Ågren Wikström (SE/EPP), Member of Västerbotten Regional Council, said: "We welcome a revised directive that will lead to cleaner and healthier waters. However, the legislation must be flexible enough, and able to adjust to different local and regional conditions. There is simply no 'one size fits all' solution. The main goal should be to have a high standard in water quality everywhere – not to have the same technology and treatment processes. The cost for treatments and energy schemes must be in line with achieved environmental benefits."
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