German Environment Agency proposes expanded cross-regulatory approach for European Commission’s “Zero Pollution Action Plan”

Linkage between the different legal instruments must be strengthened

A bridge over water in a city park.Click to enlarge
The Zero Pollution Action Plan aims to protect water, soil, air and our health.
Source: Martina Schikore /

In May 2021, the European Commission presented the Zero Pollution Action Plan, which aims to show how air, water and soil can become pollution-free. The Zero Pollution Ambition is an important building block of the European Green Deal, which is intended to minimise environmental pollution. The German Environment Agency welcomes this initiative because it puts pollution prevention and reduction on a par with climate and biodiversity protection. Nevertheless, the Action Plan must be expanded to include a cross-regulatory approach that considers the entire life cycle of pollution, including its most important sources and effects on humans and the environment. With the Scientific Opinion Paper “The Zero Pollution Action Plan as a chance for a cross-regulatory approach to pollution prevention and reduction”, the German Environment Agency has now developed proposals on how a systemic approach to pollution prevention and reduction could be designed.

One example of the existing deficits of policy coordination: After 20 years of the Water Framework Directive, the chemical status of our rivers is still not good. For example, mercury levels exceed the corresponding environmental quality standard in all rivers in Germany. One reason for this is the slow or missing feedback from water monitoring to substance regulations, such as ⁠REACH⁠. Thus, when pesticides or other chemicals are detected in water bodies, regulation should actually be tightened until a good status is achieved. To accomplish this, the linkage between the different legal instruments must be strengthened. The German Environment Agency’s new Scientific Opinion Paper provides suggestions for policy-makers at EU level on how, among other things, such interfaces can be improved.

The central element of German Environment Agency’s cross-regulatory approach is the Zero Pollution Cycle that integrates the following aspects:

  1. Identify the main stressors for health and the environment and the corresponding need for action. This requires monitoring, knowledge of pollutant properties and information on use and sources.
  2. Act quickly, in a targeted and precautionary manner, analyse the problem based on facts, prioritise and optimise the flow of information.
  3. Select appropriate measures and legal schemes, considering the problem itself, the sources of pollution, possible measures, etc.
  4. Design applicable and enforceable measures, underpin them with compliance monitoring and reporting tools, and implement them consistently.
  5. Control success, including the effectiveness of the policy instrument itself, by monitoring and examining trends in pollution.
  6. Data management and digitalisation are cross-cutting action areas that should adopt an Open Data approach and improve, standardise and link data processing between substance legislation and monitoring.

The goal of the Zero Pollution Ambition to reduce the negative impacts of human activities on the environment, health and well-being to zero will always remain a moving target. Technologies, products, services and chemical applications are constantly evolving. They will present us with new challenges and generate new pollution. Therefore, continuous innovative regulatory, technological and social responses from business, society and policy makersare needed. The scope and specific goals of actions will thus have to adapt continuously. For this reason, the Zero Pollution Ambition is best understood as a long-term programme. Nevertheless, the EU and its Member States need to step up their efforts today to achieve the current targets of the Zero Pollution Ambition.

Printer-friendly version
 Zero Pollution Ambition