A certain stupor shows the ten air quality experts and environmentalists consulted by EL PAÍS about the joint position that Madrid and Catalonia maintain in the case of the update that the European institutions are carrying out of the regulations on pollution. The European Union proposes to update the maximum exposure thresholds for the main pollutants upwards and thus bring them closer to those set in 2021 by the World Health Organization (WHO). And Madrid and Catalonia, together with six more regions grouped in the so-called Air Quality Initiative of the Regions (AIR, for its acronym in English), have requested that the new regulations contemplate “exceptions” to their compliance “for specific regions” , arguing among other matters that they are “densely populated and industrialized areas, and belong to the most economically competitive regions of the European Union.”
María Neira, director of the Department of Public Health and the Environment at the WHO, warns that “lowering ambition in air quality standards means high levels of pollution and, consequently, deaths associated with lung cancer, stroke, disease chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular diseases, more cases of asthma, neurological affectations…”. And he adds: “Decision makers who propose flexibility in air quality levels must be confronted with the clear statistics that show the lives that are left to be saved, the cases of chronic diseases that are left to be prevented and the cost that they represent to the health system hospitalizations for diseases that are chronic by postponing stricter regulations”.
“The scientific evidence of the damage caused by pollution is so strong that the only solution is to lower the limits of pollutants,” says Mark J Nieuwenhuijsen, head of the Atmospheric Pollution and Urban Environment program at ISGlobal. who says, above all, “surprised” with the position of the Catalan Government. “We don’t have time, we need to act now and reduce pollution levels now. There are many measures to do so, but we need political leadership and more actions”, affirms this specialist, who on Wednesday participated in Brussels precisely in a conference on the future directive organized by the Health Effects Institute (HEI). While these conferences were being held, representatives of three Italian regions presented AIR’s position document in the European Parliament, advocating for the flexibility of the future directive for some regions.
In Italy, these positions have already caused alarm among scientists. Half a hundred of them have launched an open letter warning of the harmfulness of the proposal. Francesco Forastiere, a renowned Italian epidemiologist, is one of the promoters of this writing. “Any flexibility and exception will weaken the directive and encourage non-compliance with huge healthcare costs in the medium and long term. The regions must now act with the sense of urgency that air pollution and climate change require”, says this public health specialist.
Xavier Querol, an air quality expert and researcher at the CSIC’s Institute for Environmental Diagnosis and Water Studies, also declared himself very surprised. “In Catalan there is a saying that was used in industrial areas: fum o fam [humo o hambre, en castellano], which has been surpassed since sustainability was pursued, that is, ending hunger without smoke”, he points out. Querol also recalls that in the case of air quality, the EU is behind schedule. And with the revision that is now being proposed by the European Commission, and that these eight regions are asking to be made more flexible, what is going to be done is only approximate what the WHO was already asking for in 2005 regarding the thresholds for some contaminants.
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Directives in the EU are negotiated three ways: between Parliament, the European Commission and the governments of the Twenty-seven. In the case of the regulation on air quality, Spain will play a particularly relevant role. Because it will be the country that holds the European presidency in the last semester of the year and because the speaker in the European Parliament will be the socialist Javi López. This MEP also strongly criticizes the position of the two regional governments: “It is shameful that the first case in which Catalonia and Madrid agree in the last 10 years is that citizens have worse air quality.” “Pollution is the greatest threat to public health,” López insists. The Ministry for the Ecological Transition, for its part, also stresses that “the review of the air quality directive is a priority for the Spanish presidency of the Council of the EU”. “We want to better adjust European legislation to the recommendations of the World Health Organization,” Teresa Ribera’s department added in a statement on Thursday.
Julio Díaz, a professor at the Carlos III Health Institute and doctor in physics, understands the proposal of these regions as “a contempt for current scientific knowledge, as well as for the WHO and, what is more important, for the health of citizens.” whose well-being they have to protect. “I trust that the EU and the Government of Spain move by other parameters.”
In the case of the Community of Madrid, its president, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, and its Executive have not shown interest in leading this battle against pollution. That is why the experts consulted are most puzzled by the fact that Catalonia shares an alliance with Madrid. The researcher Miquel Ortega warns that “Catalonia should lead and not put brakes on, especially when the objectives have not been met for a decade.” Ortega, who leads the information portal Barcelona. Contamination, also highlights that the flexibility that is now being claimed “was not in the air quality plan of which the Generalitat presented the draft four days ago.” The expert understands that some territory requires a certain adaptation depending on the context: “It makes sense that Italian regions located in basins between mountains request it; but in the case of Catalonia it is an absolute misconception”.
“It is unfortunate that the communities that have been repeatedly failing to comply with the air quality standards since 2010 and that have shown themselves incapable of complying with the current limits are trying to obstruct the revision of the directive now,” Miguel Ángel Ceballos, a quality specialist, also criticizes. of the air of Ecologists in Action. “It is shameful and unusual,” adds Cristina Arjona, head of Greenpeace’s Mobility campaign. “We must take firm measures and not postpone them. It is urgent that the next town halls and governments of the autonomous communities take the necessary measures to gradually reduce the use of private combustion vehicles and that public transport services be improved”, concludes Arjona.
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