EU zero pollution action plan: focus on the aquatic environment

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28 Jun

On 12 May 2021, the European Commission adopted the EU action plan "Towards a Zero Pollution for Air, Water and Soil". Several policy initiatives will aim to improve water quality and protect the aquatic environment. Rather than announcing completely new initiatives, the action plan tries to put in coherence a number of legislations – existing ones for which the implementation must be improved or legislations that need to be revised and updated – in order to bring the EU closer to zero pollution.

The zero pollution action plan was expected as one of the key elements for the roll-out of the European Green Deal. Its 2030 targets include:
  • improving air quality to reduce the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution by 55%;
  • improving water quality by reducing waste, plastic litter at sea (by 50%) and microplastics released into the environment (by 30%);
  • reducing by 25% the EU ecosystems where air pollution threatens biodiversity; and
  • reducing the share of people chronically disturbed by transport noise by 30%.
Beyond those specific targets, the action plan outlines a number of priorities relevant for the aquatic environment.
The Commission will review the Marine Strategy Framework Directive by 2023, taking into account the state of implementation of EU laws addressing key pollution sources and the need to reduce plastic and other litter, underwater noise and contaminants. Building upon the success of the recently agreed EU threshold value on beach litter, as part of the Directive’s implementation, the Commission will work with Member States to establish EU threshold values for maximum levels of underwater noise stemming from maritime transport, construction, dredging and other offshore activities.
The action plan recalls that the Water Framework Directive has been found ‘fit for purpose’ and thus does not need to be revised. However, the Commission underlines that when it comes to freshwater and marine pollution, achieving ‘good status’ under the Water Framework Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive would bring the EU close to realising the zero pollution ambition for all aquatic ecosystems.
The Commission will also review the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. On 28 April 2021, an open public consultation has opened for 12 weeks for stakeholders and European citizens to have their say. This Directive will be revised with the main objective of preparing the EU and its Member States for any new epidemic: the Commission will analyse the possibility to introduce permanent monitoring of health relevant parameters in wastewaters. However, this piece of legislation is also important from the recreational fishing community perspective as it has been a major drive to clean up European rivers.

In parallel, the Commission will update the lists of problematic substances for surface water and groundwater will protect nature and human health from the most relevant substances based on the most up-to-date scientific insights. This will imply updates of the Water Framework Directive and the Ground Water Directive Annexes. A public consultation will be opened during the third quarter of 2021.
On the international stage, the EU will continue to foster cooperation between relevant regional fora, such as in European river basins (Rhine, Danube) as well as support the coordination of 10 regional sea basins to jointly measure, assess and tackle different types of pollution. In addition, the Commission will pursue the global uptake and implementation of the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes and strengthen International Ocean Governance as well.

In the end, along all these forthcoming initiatives, the focal point of this zero pollution action plan will be a stricter implementation of existing EU laws that currently protect our oceans, seas and fish.
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