Europe’s Zero Pollution Dreams

Of all the objectives in the European Green Deal, presented in December 2019, the “Zero Pollution Action Plan” immediately jumped out as the one policymakers were likely to struggle with the most.
“Creating a toxic-free environment” with zero air, water and soil pollution is something hardly anyone can disagree with. Yet the objective has been treated with little urgency by the European Commission, which presented its “action plan” on 12 May – one of the last in the series of major policy initiatives launched under the Green Deal.
But instead of a great climax to round off Europe’s new climate ambition, the zero pollution action plan comes across as a list of good but toothless intentions, setting out “an integrated vision for 2050” where the world would be pollution-free.
Unlike the binding objectives agreed for 2030 and 2050 to tackle climate change, there are no time-bound legal obligations or major new policy proposals to tackle pollution. All the Commission promised is a review of existing laws “to identify remaining gaps in EU legislation” and determine whether “better implementation is necessary”.
That hardly sounds like the far-reaching plan it was lauded as. To quote the European Environmental Bureau NGO, “the proposal falls short on ramping up action to prevent pollution at source and instead mainly lists existing legal obligations and ongoing reviews of EU laws”.
In fact, the initiative seems more like a repackaging of existing EU policies than anything new.
Take air pollution, for instance: the European Commission proposes to reduce the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution by 55%. However, this is already an obligation under the EU’s air quality directive. And the Commission itself recognises that the 55% objective will be reached by 2030 “if member states implemented all measures” agreed under existing EU laws.
Granted, the plan does include some ambitious targets, such as measures to address air and noise pollution from transport and phasing out the most harmful chemicals. But it doesn’t propose any tangible ways of addressing these.
And past experience – for instance with chemicals – has shown that far-reaching environmental policies require investment in political capital, which the Commission has chosen to place in climate policy.
Like most EU environmental plans, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The zero pollution action plan may have been labelled as the cherry on top of a grand Green Deal, but it lacks the impetus for real change. For the time being, Europe’s new “action plan” bears all the hallmarks of wishful thinking and procrastination.

About Parvin Faghfouri Azar

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