The entire Year of Air has been marked by repeated calls from scientists for urgent action, yet the Commission's response is 'yes, but not until 2030.
The new package comes amid concerns that cleaner air quality has become increasingly less of a priority for EU countries, including in the UK where London currently has the highest level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution of any capital city in Europe.
The proposals come at the end of the EU's 'Year of Air', and underline the desire of the environment commissioner to ensure that better air quality is one of his legacies when his term of office finishes towards the end of 2014.
A new Clean Air Programme
The cornerstone of the new package is a new Clean Air Programme for Europe that aims to ensure that existing air quality legislation is fully complied with by 2020, and new strategic air policy goals for the period up to 2030 are set.
In the long-term it proposes that EU objectives on air pollution should be the same as the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline levels for human health - currently the WHO levels are considerably tougher.
The package includes proposals to revise the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive, which sets upper limits for each EU member state for the total emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and ammonia.
These ceilings will be lowered, and the pollutants PM2.5 - very fine particulates implicated in serious lung disease - and methane, will also be added to the directive's scope.
By adding in methane, and also proposing action on ‘black carbon', the new plans also aim to ensure proper compatibility with EU climate change policy.
A further element of the package will be a proposal for a new Directive to reduce pollution from medium-sized combustion installations, such as energy plants for large buildings, and small industry installations.
How has Europe performed so far?
Air quality standards have previously been set through a series of European pieces of legislation dating back to the 1990s, culminating in a EU-wide strategy in 2005 which set specific long-term objectives for improvements in air quality by 2020.
However, the response to existing targets in many of the EU's 28 member states to some of these targets has been mixed. This year the Commission began infringement proceedings against 17 member states, including the UK, for the failure to act properly on PM10 (particulate matter).
Currently over one-third of Air Quality Management Zones in the EU exceed the limit values for PM10, while one-quarter breach levels for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). In the UK, the government has been accused of ignoring deadlines or requesting extensions because it has failed to act sufficiently.
Earlier this year, the Healthy Air Campaign, a UK coalition of health, environment and transport groups, successfully challenged the UK Government in the Supreme Court, after the government admitted that NO2 limits in London due to be met by 2010 were unlikely to be reached before 2025.
The government had defended itself by saying that it was only required to comply with the directive "in the shortest time possible", but the court ruled that the government was failing in its legal duty to protect people from the harmful effects of air pollution.
The European Commission is sensitive to accusations that it is being too lenient on member states failing to reach targets and wanting extensions to deadlines for meeting limits for NO2 and particulate emissions.
It points out that 60% of requests for extensions have been rejected, and those that had been accepted had to demonstrate that they were in the process of actively complying.
At the launch of the package this week, Potočnik said that the EU's strong air quality management network had been a success so far, with pollution levels falling even though GDP was rising. Sulphur dioxide emissions (the cause of acid rain) have been cut by more than 80% in the past two decades, and nitrogen oxides and VOCs by 40-50%.
More needs to be done!
However Potočnik acknowledged that more needed to be done to achieve levels of air quality that do not have significant negative impacts on human health and the environment.
To support the preparation of the new proposals, research was carried out by the World Health Organisation at the request of the European Commission.
The REVIHAAP ("Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution") report found new evidence on the effects of long-term exposures to ozone, and warned that long-term exposure to fine particles (PM2.5) can trigger atherosclerosis, adverse birth outcomes and childhood respiratory diseases.
Over 80% of European citizens are exposed to PM levels above the 2005 WHO Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs), while for ozone this rises to more than 97% of the total EU urban population.
Yet the EU's targets still remain well below the guideline levels of the World Health Organisation. Potočnik said that he wished to "close the gap", with the aim of eventually harmonising the two, but this was a long way in the future.
Real cuts in air pollution from the main sources were necessary before further tightening existing EU air quality standards. "The WHO air quality guidelines are very challenging, especially in air pollution hotspots such as large cities", he said.
"The proposed policy is based on available technology, and represents a careful balance between benefits and costs. It sets the pathway to significant improvements in the long term, but with the help of larger, more structural changes, such as moving to a low carbon economy, progress will be faster."
New package would save 58,000 lives
Nevertheless, the proposed targets offered clear benefits, the Commissioner argued. If the new air quality objectives for the period up to 2030 are met, 58,000 premature deaths will be avoided, while corresponding economic benefits would be worth between €40 and €140 billion per year.
The package would also provide about €3 billion in direct economic benefits to society due to higher productivity, lower healthcare costs, higher crop yields, and less damage to buildings.
Additionally, the Commission cites carefully calculated ecosystem benefits, such as saving 123,000 km2 of ecosystems from nitrogen pollution, saving 56,000 km2 of Natura 2000 areas from nitrogen pollution, and saving 19,000 km2 forest ecosystems from acidification.
Greens respond - good, but not good enough
Environmental organisations were broadly supportive of the package while expressing disappointment it didn't go further.
The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said that revised laws on air quality were extremely necessary, but Senior Policy Officer Louise Duprez criticised the proposed new targets only applying from 2030.
"This is a first step in the right direction, but it is a paradox that the entire Year of Air has been marked by repeated calls from scientists for urgent action, yet the Commission's response is 'yes, but not until 2030'," she said. She added that air pollution from other sectors such as shipping, cars and non-road machines remain neglected.
The lack of urgency was also criticised by the Healthy Air Campaign. Alan Andrews, a lawyer for ClientEarth, said:
"We're encouraged that the Commission has recognised the scale of the problem, but disappointed they've bowed to pressure from industry and countries like the UK to put off taking action until 2030. It's now up to the European Parliament and the Council to strengthen this proposal instead of watering it down."
The next challenge - the EU member states
The future of the proposals will now depend in large part on EU politics. The proposal was drawn up by staff in the European Commission's environment directorate, DG Environment, which has been fighting to reassert its authority in Brussels since responsibility for tackling climate change was passed to a new directorate.
But the challenge is now to ensure that the package, and in particular the new ceiling limits, are not gutted by the other EU institutions who are less sympathetic than DG Environment during the EU's co-decision process.
While the European Parliament is likely to be broadly supportive towards the proposals, member states are likely to be more sceptical when they discuss the package in the Environment Council.
Given the poor record that many have in meeting some of the targets so far, member states are unlikely to be keen on stronger targets.
The 2008 Air Quality Directive set legally binding limits for ground-level concentrations of outdoor air pollutants such as PM and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). These EU limit values are legally binding concentrations that must not be breached. They are accompanied by an averaging period, the number of exceedances allowed per year, and a date by which the obligation should be met.
The 2001 National Emission Ceilings Directive set upper limits for total emissions of certain air pollutants that Member States will have to respect by a certain date, to push down concentrations. Existing ceilings are in place for 2010, as set out in the Gothenburg Protocol in 1999 and the Directive itself. New ceilings were agreed recently in a revised Gothenburg Protocol, and are proposed for 2020 and 2030 as part of the policy package.
Major air pollutants
Particulate matter (PM) is fine dust, emitted by road vehicles, shipping, power generation and households, and from natural sources such as sea salt, wind-blown soil and sand. Health concerns focus on particles of less than 10 micrometres in diameter (PM10), and especially those of less than 2.5 μm across (PM2.5). Black carbon is the sooty part of particulates emitted from combustion.
Ground-level ozone (O3) is a secondary pollutant produced by complex chemical reactions of NOx and VOCs (including methane) in sunlight.
Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is emitted by power generation, industry, shipping and households.
Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are emitted by road vehicles, shipping, power generation, industry and households.
Ammonia (NH3) is emitted by activities linked to manure and fertilisers management in agriculture and the use of fertilisers in agriculture.
Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are emitted from solvents in products and industry, road vehicles, household heating and power generation.
Methane (CH4) is emitted by natural sources such as wetlands, as well as human activities such as leakage from natural gas systems and the raising of livestock.
Matthew Ledbury is a freelance writer and environmental policy consultant.