• Commission refers Bulgaria and Spain to the court for failing to protect citizens from poor air quality

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Commission refers Bulgaria and Spain to the court for failing to protect citizens from poor air quality

Sep 27 2019

The European Commission recently decided to refer Bulgaria and Spain to the Court of Justice of the EU over poor air quality. Bulgaria is failing to respect limit values of sulphur dioxide (SO2), and Spain is failing to respect limit values for nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Today's decisions are part of reinforced action by the Commission to engage with Member States to protect citizens' health from poor air quality, as set out in the Commission's Communication 'A Europe that protects: Clean air for all' of May 2018.

In the case of Bulgaria, the latest sulphur dioxide (SO2) data presented show persisting non-compliance with the hourly and/or daily limit values for SO2 in the South-East zone, where the four largest thermal power plants in Bulgaria are located. Since 2005, EU rules sets limit values for SO2 concentration in ambient air. These provisions are applicable to Bulgaria as of its accession to the EU from 1 January 2007. Today's decision constitutes a second referral to the Court of Justice of the EU for Bulgaria's failure to comply with EU air quality standards. In its judgement of 5 April 2017, the Court confirmed Bulgaria's failure to comply with the limit values for PM10 (Commission v Bulgaria, C-488/15).

The newest air quality data provided by Spain confirms the systematic breach of EU rules on nitrogen dioxide (NO2) values, which have been legally binding since 2010. The decision to refer Spain to the Court concerns the urban areas of Madrid, Barcelona and Vallès-Baix Llobregat, where the legal limits for NO2 have been persistently breached. According to the European Environment Agency, almost 9,000 premature deaths in Spain are attributable to NO2 each year.

When limit values set by EU legislation on ambient air quality (Directive 2008/50/EC) are exceeded, as in the cases of Bulgaria and Spain, Member States have to adopt air quality plans and ensure that such plans set appropriate measures so that the exceedance period can be kept as short as possible. Guided by the principle of subsidiarity, the legislation leaves the choice of the means to comply with the limit values to the Member States.

Despite the obligation for member states to ensure good air quality for citizens, air pollution remains a problem in many places, while the situation is especially severe in urban areas.

Air pollution continues to be the number one environmental health problem in the EU, with estimates pointing to around 400,000 premature deaths attributable to air pollution per year. It causes serious diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular problems and lung cancer. Studies estimate that poor air quality causes direct economic costs well in excess of €20 billion per year.

Particulate matter (PM10) is mainly present in emissions from industry, traffic and domestic heating, but also results from agricultural emissions. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is emitted when fuels containing sulphur (coal and oil) are burned for domestic heating, power generation and motor vehicles. SO2 can affect the respiratory system and the functions of the lungs, and causes irritation of the eyes. Sulphuric acid is also the main component of acid rain, which is a cause of deforestation. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) results mostly from human activities, such as road traffic. In particular, from diesel vehicles, and industry. EU law sets limit values for PM10 and SO2 to be complied with by Member States since January 2005, whereas for NO2 – since January 2010.

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