Many European countries are failing to comply with international and European standards on air quality. Moreover, many governments have failed to take effective action to improve air quality and hence to protect their citizens' health. These are two of the findings of a joint audit performed by 14 European audit offices, including the State Audit Office of Hungary. Only Estonia was found to be in compliance with all the relevant EU standards.
Alongside national audit offices from 14 European countries, the Israeli national audit office and the European Court of Auditors also took part in the audit, the aim of which was to ascertain whether the governments of the countries in question were taking action to improve the air quality.
The participants in the joint audit were the national audit offices in Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Israel, Kosovo, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Moldova, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland, together with the European Court of Auditors.
Objective and relevance of the joint audit on air quality
In 2008, the European Union set limit values for a large number of air pollutants. The main pollutants are particulates (produced by energy consumption and traffic), nitrogen oxides (traffic) and sulphur dioxide (coal combustion). Under the terms of the Directive in question, the member states were obliged to analyse the air quality in their countries, report the results to the European Environment Agency, and draw up plans for improving the air quality where they exceeded the relevant limit values. The European Commission is empowered to take action if member states fail to comply with the Directive. If all else fails, the Commission is entitled to institute proceedings at the European Court of Justice.
Of all types of environmental pollution, air pollution is the single largest health risk in the world. In a report published in September 2018, the European Court of Auditors wrote that air pollution was the cause of 400,000 premature deaths in the EU every year and that measures taken by the EU to combat the problem had not had the desired effect. The worldwide effects of air pollution have also been analysed. During the first international conference on air pollution and health held in the autumn of 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that one in every nine deaths in the world was caused by air pollution.
The joint audit report is based on national audits performed in all the participating countries, plus an EU-wide audit. In order to be able to compare the information collected in the national audits, the participating audit offices prepared a common audit framework. The main audit question was: What is known about the effectiveness and efficiency of measures taken by national and local governments to improve air quality, and are these measures compliant with international and national legislation?
The State Audit Office of Hungary's participation in the joint audit on air quality control
The State Audit Office of Hungary's mission is to contribute to achieving environmental policy goals through its audits, thus supporting sustainable development. Consequently, the SAO also participated in the joint audit on air quality control initiated by the Working Group in 2016, involving a total of 16 EUROSAI members. The co-ordinators of the audit were the SAIs of the Netherlands and Poland.
Hungarian measures to improve air quality
The National Assembly and Government have set goals in strategic documents in order to protect air quality. Air quality assessments and analysis were taken into account in the development of goals, objectives, measures and indicators. The National Environmental Program 2015-2020 is approved by the National Assembly, which determines generally-defined goals also for air quality and its factors, the goals are set to objectives with performance indicators, and determines measures to be taken by the government, local governments, business organisations and the citizens.
The Cross-sectoral PM10 Program was approved by the Government, of which main goal is to maintain and improve the air quality and to prevent air pollution that could endanger human health and the natural environment. Accordingly, it includes the measures and tools to achieve the objectives related to grouping transport, industry, agriculture, population, services and transboundary measures. The Ministry of Agriculture developed legal consequences and sanctions in case of infringement of legal requirements regarding air protection, which sanctions are laid down in form of Government Decree.
Main findings of the Hungarian national audit on air protection
The Hungarian national audit on air protection found that regulations regarding air quality are compliant with the EU legislation. It was also confirmed that organizations of the air protection system have performed their activities in accordance with their responsibilities and scopes. The cooperation between central, regional, and local governmental actors was found to be adequate. The organizations' internal regulation is in accordance with mandatory duties.
As mentioned above, the responsible governmental party for air quality is the Ministry of Agriculture, which has prepared the necessary legislation, performed its supervisory and management duties and fulfilled its reporting obligations. The Ministry of Agriculture reports to the government, which reports are publicly available on the Government's and the National Assembly's websites. The annual reports gave information about the measures planned or taken, on the expenditures for implementation of the National Environmental Program 2009-2014 and about the Cross-sectoral PM10 Program. Measures implemented by the Cross-sectoral PM10 program were proved to be effective because the average annual concentration values of PM10 showed improvement between 2011 and 2016.
The long-term objectives of the National Environmental Programs have been fulfilled, the concentrations and total emissions of air pollutants have decreased, except for ammonium. The release of volatile organic compounds exceeded the target limits laid down in the National Environmental Program.
Although the concentration of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide exceeded the limit values, positive tendency was observable. There are several factors contributing to the reduction of the PM10 and PM2,5 concentration in the air, among which we have to mention the reduction of the final retail price of gas for households.
Transport and households' combustion are decisive factors in air quality. Therefore funding schemes, amendments of legislation and pertaining strategies target primarily energy-efficiency (especially for buildings), and increased use of renewable energy. Besides funding has been provided for environmentally friendly transport solutions (e.g. public transport, cycle routes), and for awareness-raising initiatives, tools regarding combustion.
Air quality measurement in Hungary
According to the audit findings, the air quality monitoring system in Hungary functions properly. Air quality measurement is performed by the Hungarian Air Quality Network (OLM), which is supervised by the Ministry of Agriculture. The monitoring network consists of two parts, the automatic and the manual measuring network. The automatic measurement stations continuously measure the concentrations of wide range of air pollutants, and are operated by the county government offices. The samples collected by the manual measurement network are analysed in labs.
The Hungarian Meteorological Service (OMSZ) collects, processes and provides meteorological data and information, the data are published daily. It also provides annual analyses of air quality based on OLM-data. The OMSZ's surveys and analyses identified and evaluated the existing air pollution problems and defined their risks, the publications supported the governmental decision-making – especially in the field of strategy revision.
The health impacts of air pollution and the risk factors threatening the health of the population were evaluated regularly.
Good practices to improve air quality in Hungary
Probably the most important action to improve air quality in Hungary is the electronic toll for heavy goods vehicles in the entire main road network of the country. Closely related to this, stricter traffic restrictions and particulate filter equipment program for heavy good vehicles are also essential to achieve improvement in air quality.
Not solely goods transportation should be targeted by the actions to have a remarkable impact. Improving the competitiveness of district heating (tenders for modernization of the district heat sector, use of renewable energy, renewal construction programs) and tenders for thermos-modernization for improving energy efficiency is also inevitable to reach the goals of the Government and the EU regarding air quality In addition to that, there are several factors contributing to the reduction of the PM10 and PM2,5 concentration in the air, among which we have to mention the reduction of the final retail price of gas for households.
Establishment of low emission zones, construction of bypass roads and cycle routes, the development of public transport, bus replacement programs are also priorities in Hungary, thus in larger cities, these methods seem to reach the best results regarding air pollution.
Further actions proved to be effective are restrictions on the incineration of garden waste, sanctions for illegal firing and awareness-raising initiatives of households.
Recommendations of the joint audit
Based on the findings of the joint audit, the participants make the following six recommendations:
1. prepare and implement air quality plans;
2. measure the effectiveness of action taken;
3. improve coordination between governments and executive agencies;
4. collect relevant data and perform cost-benefit analyses;
5. improve monitoring systems;
6. raise public awareness of the problem.
You can read the joint report here.