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EU countries are off-track on pollution targets

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Good morning and welcome to Europe Express.

Air pollution is a blight many in Brussels and other European cities endure on their daily commute and fresh data from the EU’s environmental agency does not paint a rosy picture. We’ll look at how the bloc is faring in meeting its goals set for seven years from now.

As we wrote earlier this week, interior ministers yesterday gave a thumbs up to Croatia to join the border check-free Schengen area and complete its EU integration on January 1 (as the Adriatic country is also joining the eurozone). Romania and Bulgaria, whose Schengen bids were also discussed, have to wait some more, however.

Speaking of central and eastern Europe, we’ll also hear about their most recent beef with Brussels: costly and no longer needed Covid-19 vaccines. The issue is likely to feature today at the health ministers’ meeting.

Hold your breath

More than 10 per cent of premature deaths in the EU are linked to environmental pollution but that grim statistic is apparently not cajoling governments to step up their efforts on meeting the bloc’s 2030 zero-pollution targets, writes Alice Hancock in Brussels.

A push to cut waste, noise pollution, plastics in the ocean and prevent nutrient loss from European soils are all failing when compared with the goals set by the European Commission, according to the European Environment Agency.

Exposure to toxic dust caused “at least” 238,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2020, the agency said recently. The EEA noted that the number of deaths linked to air pollution were higher in central and eastern European countries, something that the energy crisis would only exacerbate. (In Hungary, people are burning football boots to stay warm).

In more bad news, the agency also flagged health risks from light pollution and hazardous chemicals. In this context, the delay of the chemicals law (REACH) overhaul to the end of next year does not bode well for public health, even if it gives some breathing space to industries squeezed by the energy crisis.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s environment commissioner, admitted that the data showed “a mixed picture” but passed the buck to EU capitals saying they should better implement Brussels’ legislation.

“We need parliament and council to make swift progress with the legislative proposals linked to pollution and we need member states to step up implementation of existing EU pollution laws,” he said.

In particular Sinkevičius called out the need for EU countries to do more to cut ammonia emissions, 94 per cent of which come from the agricultural sector and which is excessive in 11 member states, according to figures released yesterday.

Ammonia from agriculture is toxic to plants, making them more susceptible to pests and frost, and causes acidification of soils.

The commission is already facing a fight on that front by including large-scale farms in its revision of the bloc’s industrial emissions law, negotiations on which are due to be finalised next year.

There were some positives from the report: the EU has cut the use of chemical pesticides by 14 per cent between 2017 and 2020 and water quality has improved.

The numbers take on an extra significance this week as EU negotiators land in Montreal for the lesser known COP15 biodiversity conference to push a global deal to conserve 30 per cent of the world’s natural ecosystems by 2030.

Sinkevičius, who travels there on December 14, said he would use the numbers in the report as evidence “to convince our partners to set ambitious pollution reduction targets”.

Can the EU still meet its zero-pollution targets by 2030? Tell us what you think and click here to take the poll.

Chart du jour: From the frontline

Maps showing that there has been comparative little movement on the frontline around Bakhmut

In this dispatch from the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Christopher Miller reports on how soldiers are drawing a comparison between what they are experiencing and the trench warfare of the first world war.

Vaccine culling

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Two years after the EU happily splurged billions on contracts for vaccines to tackle Covid-19, some member states are complaining that they are paying too much for too many jabs. Millions of doses are being destroyed, writes Andy Bounds in Brussels.

Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides told Europe Express that she was trying to change the initial contracts with pharmaceutical companies to scale back supply — pre-empting a debate on the subject at today’s meeting of health ministers.

They are struggling with mounting bills to care for Ukrainian refugees, long-term Covid sufferers and outbreaks of seasonal diseases.

In a letter in November seen by Europe Express, 10 countries, all from central and eastern Europe, complained to Kyriakides, calling for “urgent amendments” to contracts.

“We continue to struggle with an excess of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines,” the group, including Bulgaria, the Baltic states and Poland, wrote. They argued that even if companies agreed to postpone deliveries and extend expiry dates, “in reality this does not solve the problems, but only postpones the inevitable, ie the disposal of vaccines”.

The countries pointed out that many of their citizens were not taking booster shots. They also cannot donate to developing countries which have a glut of their own.

Slovenia, a country of just 2.1mn, has spent €68mn on vaccines in 2022, according to data from its ministry of health. It has destroyed 115,000 doses of vaccines and 581,000 doses of other drugs to treat Covid. It has to buy another 2.5m vaccine doses worth €45m under current contracts.

The Cypriot commissioner has managed to delay deliveries but says she can only change contracts by mutual consent with the manufacturers.

“We are no longer at the peak of the pandemic, and this has an impact on the demand for vaccines,” she told Europe Express. “Public finances are now under great strain after almost three years with Covid and the consequences of the Russian war in Ukraine. It’s vital that companies work in partnership with the member states and the commission to ensure that agreements reflect current realities,” she added.

Kyriakides will today stress to health ministers that it was not the commission on its own which signed the contracts in the dark days of 2020 when countries were crying out for jabs.

“This was a joint process with member states who were consulted throughout,” her spokesman said.

What to watch today

  1. EU health ministers meet in Brussels

  2. Leaders from EU Mediterranean nations meet in Alicante

Smart reads

  • Bond, she/her: For the first time in the history of MI6, three of its four director-generals are female. This FT Magazine piece by Helen Warrell explores why women often make the best spies for our times.

  • Oil price cap: In this analysis, Bruegel think-tank lays out the reality and consequences of the west’s recently implemented price cap on shipped Russian oil.

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