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Commission proposes stronger rules for cleaner air and water

The European Commission is proposing stronger rules on ambient air, surface and groundwater pollutants and the treatment of urban wastewater.

Clean air and water are essential for the health of people and ecosystems. As recalled by the Commission, air pollution alone means nearly 300,000 Europeans die prematurely each year and the proposed new rules will reduce deaths resulting from levels of the main pollutant PM2.5 above World Health Organization guidelines by more than 75 per cent in ten years.

Across air and water, all of the new rules provide a clear return on investment thanks to benefits in health, energy savings, food production, industry and biodiversity. Learning the lessons from current laws, the Commission is proposing to both tighten allowed levels of pollutants and to improve implementation to ensure pollution reduction goals are more often reached in practice. These proposals are a key advance for the European Green Deal’s zero pollution ambition of having an environment free of harmful pollution by 2050.

“Our health depends on our environment. An unhealthy environment has direct and costly consequences for our health,” said the Executive Vice-President of the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans. “Each year, hundreds of thousands of Europeans die prematurely and many more suffer from heart- and lung diseases or pollution-induced cancers. The longer we wait to reduce this pollution, the higher the costs to society. By 2050, we want our environment to be free of harmful pollutants. That means we need to step up action today. Our proposals to further reduce water and air pollution are a crucial piece of that puzzle.”

“The quality of the air we breathe and the water we use is fundamental for our lives and the future of our societies,” added Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius. “Polluted air and water harm our health and our economy and the environment, affecting the vulnerable most of all. It is therefore our duty to clean up air and water for our own and future generations. The cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of prevention. That is why the Commission is acting now to ensure coordinated action across the Union to better tackle pollution at source – locally and cross-border.”

The proposed revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directives will set interim 2030 EU air quality standards which will put the EU on a trajectory to achieve zero pollution for air at the latest by 2050, in synergy with climate-neutrality efforts. The revision will ensure that people suffering health damages from air pollution have the right to be compensated in the case of a violation of EU air quality rules. The proposals leave it to national and local authorities to determine the specific measures they would take to meet the standards.

Additionally, the revised Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive will help Europeans benefit from cleaner rivers, lakes, groundwaters and seas while making wastewater treatment more cost-effective. To make the best possible use of wastewater as a resource, it is proposed to aim for energy-neutrality of the sector by 2040 and improve the quality of sludge to allow for more reuse contributing thus to a more circular economy.

Several improvements will support health and environmental protection. These include obligations to recover nutrients from wastewater, new standards for micropollutants and new monitoring requirements for microplastics.

As 92 per cent of toxic micro-pollutants found in EU wastewaters come from pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, a new Extended Producer Responsibility scheme will require producers to pay for the cost of removing them. This is in line with the polluter pays principle and it will also incentivise research and innovation into toxic-free products, as well as making financing of wastewater treatment fairer.
The wastewater sector has significant untapped renewable energy production potential, for example from biogas.  EU countries will be required to track industrial pollution at source to increase the possibilities of reusing sludge and treated wastewater, avoiding the loss of resources. Rules on recovering phosphorus from sludge will support their use to make fertiliser, benefiting food production.

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