Ecologistas en Acción yesterday lodged a petition at the European Commission to start sanctionary proceedings against Spain for not having drawn up mandatory plans to improve air quality in the fifty areas which have breached legal target values between 2010 and 2016 to protect health and vegetation set out in European legislation on tropospheric ozone.
If the complaint is eventually accepted, this will be the third EU procedure initiated against Spain on air pollution, following the ones opened in 2009 and 2015 relating to suspended particulates and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which are awaiting referral to the European Court of Justice.
The registered letter responds to the letter from the European Commission dated 16 June 2017 in which the Directorate General for the Environment recommends no further steps to be taken on the complaint lodged a year ago by Ecologistas en Acción, arguing that “complying with the ozone target values is a complex matter” due to ozone being a secondary pollutant formed by chemical reactions of other pollutants.
At the same time, “the Commission expects that the current procedure relating NO2 limits being exceeded in several air quality zones in Spain [Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia, among others] should lead to a long-term reduction in NO2 levels which will ultimately will have an effect on ozone levels since NO2 is a precursor to ozone”.
Ecologistas en Acción does not accept the European Commission neglecting its duty to oversee compliance with the obligations set out in European legislation on air quality. Poor air quality is harming the health of tens of millions of Southern European citizens including 18 million people in Spain residing in the 40 areas which exceeded the legal target value in 2016 put in place to protect health. These areas were spread across the autonomous regions of Andalusia, Aragon, the Balearics, Castile-La Mancha, Castile and Leon, Catalonia, the Valencian Community, Extremadura, Madrid, Navarre and the Basque Country.
62 areas within the same autonomous regions were also non-compliant with the obligation to adopt the aforementioned air quality plans to avoid surpassing the legal target threshold over the same period in order to protect vegetation. A total surface area of 340,000 square kilometres, 64 % of the territory, was affected.
According to the European Directive on Air Quality, the Member States must draw up air quality plans in the areas and urban agglomerations in which the ozone levels detected in ambient air exceed any of the target values in order to comply with the appropriate target value.
The Spanish law on air quality conferred jurisdiction to draw up these plans to the regions. This is a mandatory measure for the regions which is not to be understood as being discretionary and is separate from any initiatives the central government may take.
For this reason, Ecologistas en Acción has again approached the offending regions in the past few months asking them to urgently adopt the legally backed plans to improve air quality in the areas affected by non-compliance with the legal target values for ozone. Of the dozen requests made, only the regional governments of Aragon, Castile and Leon, the Valencian Community and Navarre have responded, and in a similar manner to the European Commission, excusing their inactivity due to the complexity of the issue and referring to a non-existent national plan to be drawn up by the central government.
The target value is defined as the “level of a pollutant which must be attained, wherever possible, at a specific point of time in order to avoid, prevent or reduce the harmful effects on human health, the environment as a whole and other assets of any kind”. The 8-hour target value to protect human health is 120 micrograms of ozone per square metre of air (μg/m3), which must not be surpassed on more than 25 days of any given calendar year for an average period of three years.
A third of the 450 reference air pollution monitoring stations measuring the pollutant in Spain have observed values in excess of the target values over the past three-year period.
These stations have allowed us to find out that pollution has affected the entire regions of Castile-La Mancha and Madrid, which are the regions most adversely affected due to the traffic emissions from the metropolitan area of Madrid. Over and above harming the health of the six-and-a-half million people living in Madrid, the pollution also seriously affects a further two million people living in Castile-La Mancha and the north of Extremadura.
Apart from the problem created by the urban traffic in Madrid, the other major hub of ozone pollution in Spain is along the Mediterranean coast. Running from Girona in the north to Almeria in the south, passing through Barcelona, Valencia, Murcia and the Balearic Islands, pollution affects almost four million people, especially in inland areas. The pollution is caused by urban and interurban traffic, sea and air transport in the major cities and some industry, such as power stations and incinerators.
The remaining areas affected by high ozone levels are inland Andalusia and the south of Extremadura (including the urban areas of Cordoba, Huelva, Jaen, Seville and Merida), the agglomeration of Valladolid and the Ebro valley, running from Tarragona up to Navarre and the Basque Country, in which a further six million people live.
Against this backdrop, the currently non-existent plans to improve air quality should include a reduction in the intense urban and interurban traffic which the main Spanish cities are subjected to, by fostering a model of compact cities where the use of clean means of transport such as going by train, bus, bicycle or by foot is promoted. Besides that, a progressive closure of large coal-burning power stations should be set in motion and these should be replaced by renewable energy sources. This should all be instituted without harming the necessary coordination between the autonomous regions and the Spanish central government and the European Union.
Tropospheric ozone, also known as “bad” ozone to differentiate it from the ozone found in the stratosphere, is a secondary pollutant resulting from the reaction between sunlight and nitrogen dioxide and volatile hydrocarbons emitted by cars and some industry. If inhaled, it can cause irritation to the eyes and the upper respiratory tract; it can increase the risk of acute respiratory diseases and reduce lung function, as well as aggravating cardiovascular conditions.
The WHO estimates that exposure to ozone levels currently result in 1,800 premature deaths in Spain and 17,000 in Europe each year. In addition to being harmful to humans, ozone is also toxic to vegetation, damaging forests and reducing the productivity of crops.