The European Court of Auditors (ECA) said on September 11 that the European Union should do more to improve air quality across the bloc’s member states, with Bulgaria in particular emerging as one of the worst offenders in the ECA report.
The report quotes World Health Organisation (WHO) data from 2012, which showed Bulgaria lost nearly two and a half years of healthy life from ambient pollution per hundred inhabitants, more than triple the EU average and worse than China and India, notorious for their poor urban air quality.
Other, more recent data quoted in the ECA report offered an equally dim picture. In 2016, only six member states met all pollutant limit values set by EU’s ambient air quality directive, but Bulgaria was the only country to fail all three – on particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide.
The failure to tackle sulphur dioxide pollution was paricularly egregious, given that the EU daily value – which is met by all other EU countries – is more than six times higher than the WHO guideline value.
Bulgaria is currently the subject of an EU infringement proceeding for its failure to meet the sulphur dioxide limit values. It is also one of two countries, alongside Poland, where the European Commission pursued and won European Court of Justice rulings on infringements related to particulate matter pollution.
In its rulings, the ECJ confirmed that merely adopting an air quality plan to comply with the air pollution directive was not enough, and ruled that Bulgaria and Poland had not fulfilled their obligations to keep the period in which limits were exceeded as short as possible.
Making matters worse, Bulgaria was spending less of its EU funding for air quality. Although dedicated funding for air quality improvement doubled at the EU level in the 2014-2020 budget period (from 880 million euro in the 2007-2013 budget period to 1.8 billion euro), in Bulgaria’s case it was cut from 120 million euro to 50 million euro.
The report estimated that air pollution caused about 400 000 premature deaths in the EU each year and hundreds of billions of euro in health-related external costs.
“Air pollution is the biggest environmental risk to health in the European Union,” said Janusz Wojciechowski, the European Court of Auditors member responsible for the report. “In recent decades, EU policies have contributed to emission reductions, but air quality has not improved at the same rate and there are still considerable impacts on public health.”
To improve EU air quality, the auditors recommended that the European Commission should take more effective action, including sharing best practices and actively managing each stage of infringement proceedings; an “ambitious update” of the air quality directive to reduce pollutant limit values in line with latest WHO guidelines and improving air quality plans; prioritising and mainstreaming air quality into other EU policies; as well as improving public awareness and information on the issue of air pollution.
(Smog over Sofia in January 2018. Photo: Hristo Iliev)