“Big on big things and small on small things”: How big is “400.000” deaths a year?

By Yasmine Hassan 

Politicians and environmental NGOs accuse the new European commission of deprioritizing air quality within the EU, following the disappearance of two environmental proposals from the commission’s 2015-work program.

Critics refer to President Jean-Claude Juncker’s statement while announcing the 2015 agenda, “I want to be serious about being big on big things and small on small things.”

“It was clear that they took, in general, environment as a small thing that should be nationally regulated,” Greens member of the European parliament Margrete Auken says.

The Juncker Commission that took charge in July 2014 was faced with a wide range of criticism for dropping from its 2015 work program: the “Circular Economy package” of waste and recycling laws, and “The Clean Air Policy Package” that sets new emission caps for better air quality.

Zoltan Massay-Kosubek, of the European Public Health Alliance, criticizes the commission’s political agenda that aims at “saving costs”. “If we don’t have a healthy population, we have to pay health care costs and we will have less productive people,” Zoltan says.

Large parts of the European population are exposed to concentrations of air pollutants that impose significant risks on human health and the environment, contributing to nearly half a millions deaths a year.

Following a public outcry, the Commission clarified in December that both proposals would not be withdrawn, but rather modified for better outcome.

So far, there are no updates about the circular economy proposal. “They said they did it in order to come back with a more ambitious proposal but they haven’t proposed anything yet,” Social Democrat member of the European parliament Christel Schaldemose says.

The Clean Air Policy package, on the other hand, is back to the legislative process.

“I think that they didn’t dare to drop it because there is clear evidence that we have a problem with air quality in Europe, and we put a very strong pressure on the commission,” Schaldemose says.

There are not any striking modifications introduced in the new commission’s proposal. However, Professor Torben Sigsgaard, head of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aarhus University, sees that the new package is weaker. “The first impression is that they have been rolling back the goals for 2020 in the new package,” Sigsgaard explains.

Enrico Brivio, the spokesperson for the environment and health committees in the European Commission, says that the decision to bring a modified proposal for the clean air policy was to help bridge the gap between the parliament and the council in order to facilitate an agreement.

According to Brivio, the Commission acknowledges air pollution as a big problem that needs to be tackled. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that this field relies heavily on the role of the member states in implementing the appropriate measures.