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New watered-down EU air pollution targets

Compared to the Commission’s proposal, the relaxed targets finally agreed by member states and parliament will result in thousands of additional cases of premature death.

On 30 June, the last day of the Dutch EU Presidency, the Council and the European Parliament reached a provisional agreement on a new National Emission Ceilings (NEC) directive.

The new directive establishes national limits for the emissions of five pollutants: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC), ammonia and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). The limits are set as binding National Emission Reduction Commitments (NERC), expressed as percentage reductions from the base year 2005.

The NERCs for 2020 to 2029 are identical to those to which the member states are already committed in the revised Gothenburg protocol under the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution. Since these limits in many cases allow emissions that are even higher that what is expected to result from countries implementing already adopted legislation, they have widely been criticised for their weakness.

More importantly, new stricter NERCs from 2030 have now been agreed. These are set to reduce the health impacts of air pollution by 49.6 per cent in 2030, compared to 2005. While the Commission and the Parliament aimed for an ambition level that would result in a 52 per cent reduction in premature deaths from air pollution, the Council (i.e. the member states) argued for a significantly less ambitious target of 48 per cent. The compromise now agreed has been estimated to result in some 10,000 additional annual premature deaths in 2030, on top of more than a quarter of a million annual premature deaths that are expected to remain if the Commission’s proposal was to be implemented.

Looking at the specific NERCs for each member state, and comparing these with the Commission’s proposal, it was agreed to lower 79 of the 140 targets for 2030, while agreeing to keep 40 at the level proposed by the Commission, and setting more ambitious targets in just 21 cases (see Table).

At the bottom of the league among member states we find Bulgaria, Greece and Romania, who have all chosen to weaken their NERCs for all five pollutants, while Austria, Denmark, Italy, Poland and the UK lowered targets for four of the pollutants.

In contrast, Finland accepted all its targets, closely followed by Belgium, France and Sweden, which stick to four out of the five targets. As icing on the cake, Finland has opted for a tougher target for ammonia, and Sweden has opted for tougher targets for both sulphur dioxide and PM2.5.

For the EU as a whole, ammonia and NMVOC are the pollutants for which the ambition level has been downgraded the most, by six percentage points. This outcome for ammonia is particularly remarkable as the emission cuts achieved so far for this pollutant have been very modest compared to those for the other pollutants, especially considering that the proposed reduction target for 2030 was much less ambitious than for the other pollutants.

Member states managed to remove the ozone precursor methane completely from the directive, despite objections from the Parliament and the Commission. Here, the industrial farming lobby was instrumental in pushing through both the drastically lowered ambition for ammonia and the removal of methane.

Moreover, member states succeeded in introducing a variety of additional flexibilities in order to make it easier for them to comply. While the Commission had already included three flexibilities in its proposal, five more have now been added to the final text. Environmental organisations have strongly criticised these flexibilities, claiming that they will result in higher emissions; delayed reductions; more avoidable deaths and environmental damage; more unnecessary administration; and an unenforceable directive.

Because of the lax 2020 targets, and to better ensure that countries really are on track to meet their 2030 NERCs, the Parliament had also pushed for binding targets for the intermediate year 2025. The Commission’s proposal included only indicative (i.e. non-binding) targets for that year. Here, member states succeeded in watering down even the already weak Commission proposal, so that now there are only vague guiding figures for 2025.

Commenting on the outcome, Louise Duprez, senior air quality policy officer at the EEB, said: “EU action to cut air pollution is welcome and will help Europeans breathe more easily. But all in all this is a missed opportunity that will still leave tens of thousands of citizens exposed to avoidable air pollution. The Parliament and the Commission were defeated by member states, including the UK, France, Italy, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, which preferred to allow industry and agriculture to carry on polluting rather than focusing attention on measures to save people’s lives.”

On 12 July, the Parliament ’s environment committee voted to support the provisional NEC deal, with 43 votes in favour and 14 against. Before it comes into force, the NEC proposal will go to the Parliament for a vote in plenary in November, and after that the Council will need to officially endorse the text.

Christer Ågren

Table: Country-by-country national emission reduction commitments (NERC) for 2030 in per cent as compared to the base year 2005. Left column shows the Commission’s proposal, as adjusted in early 2015; Right column shows the final outcome, as agreed on 30 June 2016.

Table: Country-by-country national emission reduction commitments (NERC) for 2030 in per cent as compared to the base year 2005. Left column shows the Commission’s proposal, as adjusted in early 2015; Right column shows the final outcome, as agreed on 30 June 2016.

Dutch activists sue government over air pollution

Dutch environmentalists said Tuesday they are suing the government over poor air quality, saying people’s “fundamental” rights to good health were being infringed.

In a lawsuit filed on Monday, the Milieudefensie group alleged “the Netherlands exceeds the legal standards for air quality and is violating fundamental human rights by doing too little to combat air pollution.”

“This pollution causes thousands of deaths every year, and leaves tens of thousands of people seriously ill. That is unacceptable,” added the group’s campaign manager, Anne Knol, in a statement.

The suit launched in The Hague is the first step in a lengthy process which could lead to a trial. The first hearing is due to be held on August 17.

Environmental activists say under the constitution “the state has a duty to protect citizens from unhealthy air.”

The group alleges that, in tests carried out at 58 sites across the country last year, the levels of nitrogen dioxide exceeded European norms in 11 places.

The indictment has been signed by 57 Dutch citizens, and the lawsuit has been launched after a crowd-funding campaign raised some 30,000 euros ($33,593) to cover the costs.

This latest action comes after another Dutch environmental rights group, Urgenda, last year won a landmark ruling ordering the government to slash greenhouse gases by a quarter by 2020.

Climate experts hailed the June 2015 ruling as “a milestone” in a case brought by 900 Dutch citizens seeking to force a national reduction of the emissions blamed for global warming. The government is appealing.

MPs call for evidence on post-Brexit environment strategy

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has set a September deadline for the new Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (EU) David Davis, and new Minister for the Environment Therese Coffey to reveal how they plan to handle environmental policies during exit negotiations.

A letter from Labour MP and EAC chair Mary Creagh has called on the two ministers to deliver oral evidence at House’s September sitting as to how negotiating a deal to leave the EU will impact environmental policies such as air quality, water pollution and waste management.

“The Committee is particularly concerned and wishes to seek reassurance about the Government’s plans for the large proportion of UK environmental law that originated from EU level, the Government’s approach to ongoing negotiations around EU measures such as the Circular Economy Package and how the Government intends to maintain the benefits of transnational cooperation on environmental issues such as climate change,” Creagh said in the letter.

In the letter, which arrived just weeks after an inquiry on how Brexit would affect UK climate policy was launched, Creagh noted that the EU had implemented a “widespread impact on the environment” with many of the legislative measures covering the environment and climate change established at EU level.

Creagh also alluded to recent ONS figures, which show that the UK’s low-carbon and renewables economy was worth £46.2bn and supported nearly 250,000 jobs, as a reason why there are concerns that the Government may “deprioritise the issue”.

The letter claimed that business investors required “stability” and that the Brexit strategy should provide evidence on how the UK plans to tackle its worsening air quality levels and its “poor quality” water sites. A blueprint should also be provided on how the UK plants to improve biodiversity protection, which is likely to be secured through a new €12m MoorLIFE 2020 project.

The letter also calls on the ministers to provide evidence on how any policy changes or amendments would secure the current platform that has allowed the UK to “show global leadership on climate change”. Last month, former Energy Secretary Amber Rudd reassured delegates at the Business and Climate Summit that post-Brexit Britain would not step back from climate leadership.

Commenting on the letter, Friends of the Earth Campaigner Sam Lowe said: “It is essential that the government upholds current EU protections for our nature and wildlife and looks to improve them. With over 70% of our environmental laws coming from Europe, the government must urgently clarify its intent to create UK rules which will fully protect our environment.

“The government must also make sure that existing laws continue to be enforced throughout the negotiation period and that weakened protection for our environment doesn’t become a by-product of Brexit uncertainty.”

Circular Economy

The Circular Economy Package – which includes 65% recycling targets, tools to halve food waste by 2030, and measures to promote reparability in the design phase of products – has been one of the biggest areas of uncertainty surrounding the UK’s ability to trade products outside of a Member State status.

Speaking exclusively at edie’s Resource Revolution event earlier this month, chair of the UK’s Circular Economy Taskforce Sue Armstrong-Brown said the only way for Britain to open up trading streams with the EU after it leaves the bloc will be to create much more recyclable, repairable and reusable products and services. However, there are concerns that Brexit could lead to the collapse of the UK’s plateauing recycling rates.

Matt Mace

The true cost of consumption: The EU’s Land Footprint

EU’s dependence on overseas agricultural land trampling the world

Europe is becoming increasingly dependent on farm land beyond its borders, creating inequalities and threatening both the environment and rural communities, according to a new report released today by Friends of the Earth Europe.

The report reveals that the European Union requires almost 270 million hectares of agricultural land – known as Europe’s ‘Land Footprint’ – to sustain its unsustainable food production and agricultural practices. Almost 40% of this land is outside Europe, an area the size of Italy and France combined [1].

Meadhbh Bolger, resource use campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe said: “Overconsumption is eating up ever more land, often with disastrous consequences. It is unjust, irresponsible and unsustainable that we continue to use more than our fair share of global land and are shifting more than one-third of the impacts related to land consumption to ecosystems and communities outside of the EU. It is vital that the EU take steps to measure and reduce Europe’s Land Footprint.”


The report also reveals the knock-on impacts of over-reliance on imported animal feed and year-round seasonal goods, and surging demand for vegetable oils, particularly those for non-food uses such as biofuel – with a 34% increase in cropland consumed from outside the EU since 1990. Animal products like meat and dairy account for over 70% of the overall land requirements, and non-food crops like biofuels are linked to negative social impacts on local communities and environmental impacts, including forest loss.

Stanka Becheva, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe said: “To reduce our inequitable footprint we need a radical overhaul in how and where we use land. Industrialised agriculture and global food chains are swallowing up land across the globe, damaging the environment and rural communities. We rapidly need a just transition to a greener way of farming that works for all people and the planet.”

Friends of the Earth Europe is calling on the European Union to reduce its land footprint, and the associated harmful impacts, ensuring that our use of land is environmentally sustainable and socially just.


This can be achieved by implementing a system for measuring, monitoring and reducing Europe’s land footprint, especially in the areas of bio-economy, circular economy and sustainability policies. Providing incentives that encourage a reduction in the consumption of land intensive products or products that embody relatively high environmental impacts like animal products will also drastically reduce Europe’s land footprint, according to the organisation.


[1] The “Land Footprint” as referred to above, and in the report, refers to agricultural land only (cropland and grassland). Due to current data limitations, EU-wide Land Footprints for non-agricultural products are not possible to calculate.

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MPs have expressed their concern at the future of EU-derived environmental policy in the government’s Brexit negotiations and have asked members of the government to clarify their position.

Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), wrote to Brexit Secretary David Davis and new Environment minister Therese Coffey to seeks assurances about plans for the large proportion of UK environmental law that originates from the EU.

Following a public inquiry completed earlier this year, the EAC concluded that the EU had been ‘crucial’ in shaping British environmental policy and helping the UK lose its moniker as ‘the dirty man of Europe’.

Davies was given the new role Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union during Theresa May’s governmental reshuffle earlier this month, which also saw Coffey join the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), replacing Resources Minister Rory Stewart, though her role at the department has yet to be formally confirmed.

Reassurances sought

Both ministers have been invited by Creagh to provide oral evidence to the EAC when Parliament reconvenes in September to explain how the government intends to approach environmental issues during the Brexit negotiations.

In particular the committee wants to hear about plans for the environmental law that was derived from the EU and the government’s approach to EU-wide initiatives like the Circular Economy Package, which is seeking to facilitate a more resource-efficient way of life and is currently working its way around the European institutions for ratification.

Ministers from Defra told the inquiry that little had been planned for the eventuality that Britain might vote to leave the EU prior to the referendum in June, but did warn that a vote to leave would trigger a ‘long and tortuous negotiation’ over environmental laws and industries.

Creagh’s letter reads: ‘There are few areas of government policy where the decision to leave the European Union will have a more widespread impact than the environment.

‘Britain’s membership of the EU has been crucial to the improvement of UK air quality, the cleaning up of water pollution, the management of waste, and the protection of biodiversity. It has given us a platform on which we can show global leadership in tackling climate change.’

The EAC’s report stated that EU membership has ensured that environmental action in the UK has been taken on a faster timetable, and ‘if the UK were free to set its own environmental standards, it would set them at a less stringent level than has been imposed by the EU’. It also pointed to the lack of air pollution action taken prior to EU air quality limits.

Creagh continued: ‘My Committee believes the government should, as a minimum, commit to maintaining in law the existing level of environmental protection currently guaranteed by EU law.’

One of the main worries of the majority of the waste and resources industry prior to the referendum was what impact Brexit would have on investment in infrastructure, both in the long and short term.

Creagh, who was a vocal campaigner to remain in the EU, wrote: ‘Businesses and investors will be looking for stability at this time. It is crucial that the Government demonstrates its commitment to environmental protection at an early stage in the exit negotiations…

‘We would like to know what enforcement mechanisms and changes to regulatory regimes are planned.’

Six EU countries have already met their 2030 climate targets

Greece, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, Portugal and Romania won’t be required to cut emissions in transport or farming for 15 years

Six EU member states do not need to cut greenhouse gas emissions from transport, waste, buildings and farming for 15 years.

That is the outcome of proposals for sharing efforts towards the bloc’s 2030 climate target, published on Wednesday.

The European Commission set targets for each country from a 2005 baseline, according to their relative wealth and capacity for making reductions. Many are grumbling the obligations are too onerous.

Yet Greece, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, Portugal and Romania were already emitting less than their 2030 allocation in 2014, analysis shows.

“While some EU governments will argue that these targets are too stringent, the reality is they are very weak,” said Damien Morris of consultancy Futureproof.

“When you have China talking about peaking its emissions before 2030, it is only fair for EU countries to make absolute cuts.”

Analysis: Damien Morris

Analysis: Damien Morris

Member states fought fiercely to minimise their obligations towards the 2020 target, but as Climate Home reported, the EU passed its 2020 emissions target six years early.

Part of that can be attributed to an economic slowdown since the 2008 financial crisis. Clean energy and efficiency policies made an impact too, putting most countries on track to easily meet their contribution.

“It makes the bust-up on effort share back in 2009 seem like wasted effort in retrospect,” said Jonathan Gaventa, director at London-based think tank E3G.

Today, some countries are concerned they could be asked to increase their contribution if and when the UK leaves the bloc. The European Commission was silent on this point.

Analysts at Thompson Reuters Point Carbon calculate each would need to make an extra 1.1% reduction if Britain’s share were to be redistributed evenly, or 2% if only rich countries do more.

Debates on the impact of Brexit will look like “a storm in a tea-cup” in 10 years’ time, added Gaventa.

The fact that six countries are already overshooting their 2030 targets underlines this.

With the exception of Greece, they were not required to make absolute emissions cuts under the 2020 package. They did so anyway. How? Why? And can we expect that trend to continue or reverse?

Let’s look at each, in order of how much they are permitted to grow emissions by 2030.

Greece (14%)

Hit by a debt crisis and economic downturn since 2008, climate policy has not been top of the agenda for Greece. Its falling emissions reflect belt-tightening more than low carbon investment.

Still, it has a number of energy efficiency initiatives that have played a part. And if financial woes have closed down polluting industries, it does not follow that reintroducing them is the best route to prosperity.

EU-wide fuel standards are likely to clean up road transport irrespective of national policies. The islands have an incentive to embrace clean energy to reduce reliance on diesel imports.

Hungary (12%)

The first EU country to ratify the Paris Agreement, Hungary is adopting a climate-friendly stance under president Janos Ader.

Its economy has modernised considerably since the Soviet era, with brown industries giving way to higher tech export sectors.

An adviser to President Ader told Climate Home public concern about climate change was increasing and Hungary is not likely to regress, whatever its official target.

Croatia (8%)

As with Greece, a six-year recession played a large part in Croatia’s emission slump, hitting industry. The country made some gestures towards green policy in its bid for EU membership, clinched in 2013.

Its direction now is uncertain. An election is coming up in September, after the five-month-old coalition government collapsed.

In a win for environmental campaigners, a planned 500MW coal plant has been shelved. State-owned utility HEP last week opened its first solar-powered electric vehicle charging point.

Recycling rates are low but increasing, while there is untapped potential for energy efficiency.

Bulgaria (7%)

The official line is that Bulgaria will struggle to meet its targets, according to former environment minister Julian Popov. He disagrees.

It has the worst energy efficiency rating in the EU, he told Climate Home – and therefore plenty of room for improvement.

A programme to renovate crumbling Communist-era pre-fab buildings is working, said Popov. “There is no reason to expect some kind of energy intensive reindustrialisation of the country.”

Romania (3%)

Neighbouring Romania has a similar profile. Home to the EU’s largest onshore windfarm, it is cleaning up a coal-heavy electricity generation mix.

With the lowest car ownership rate in the EU, however, it could see increased demand push up transport emissions.

Portugal (2%)

It made headlines in May for running on 100% renewable power for four days in a row. Portugal is quietly forging ahead with clean energy, even as its economy stutters.

Indirectly, abundant clean power can help decarbonise transport and other sectors counted in the effort sharing decision. Portugal has more than 1,000 electric vehicle charging stations across 30 municipalities and aims to get 10% of energy used for transport from renewable sources by 2020.

“The expectations of economic recovery should not contradict a low carbon trajectory,” Francisco Ferreira of Porto-based NGO Zero told Climate Home.

“There are measures planned, specifically in transport sector, that will enable Portugal to take a pathway more consistent with the Paris Agreement.”

Air pollution—crossing borders

A silent killer responsible for more deaths than the number from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and road injuries combined. A killer indifferent to political agendas and that cannot be contained by borders. Air pollution is associated with around 6·5 million deaths each year globally. While premature deaths from household air pollution are projected to decline from 3·5 million today to 3 million by 2040, premature deaths from outdoor pollution are set to rise from 3 million to 4·5 million in the same period. Transformative action is needed to mitigate this death toll.

There is a dearth of information available on the health effects and economic impact of environmental pollution. Proven solutions are available, but implementation remains a challenge that requires coordinated efforts across sectors and nations. A report by the World Wildlife Fund’s European Policy Office, Climate Action Network Europe, the Health and Environment Alliance, and Sandbag has, for the first time, quantified the cross-border health effects of air pollution from coal use in electricity generation in the European Union (EU), estimating total associated economic costs of up to €62·3 billion. The report aims to promote debate on the rapid phase-out of coal-burning power generation and calls for action at the national and EU level. Toxic particles created by burning coal can be carried beyond the borders of the countries where the power plants are situated. In France, where coal burning is low, 1200 premature deaths a year are caused by air pollution from the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Spain, and the UK. The cross border nature of coal pollution highlights the need for governments to work together to urgently phase out coal burning.

The need for cooperation is reiterated in a special report on Energy and Air Pollution from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which campaigns for global action to overcome the negative environmental effects of energy use. The report cites energy production as the most important source of air pollution coming from human activity and presents strategies to tackle energy poverty in developing countries, reduce pollutant emissions through post-combustion control technologies, and promote clean forms of energy.

The Clean Air Scenario presented by IEA uses benchmarks for air quality goals, such as WHO guideline levels, to set long-term targets. Strategies outlined for the energy sector are adapted to different national and regional settings. In developing countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, a notable health impact arises from smoky environments caused by use of wood and other solid fuels for cooking; whereas power plants, industrial facilities, and vehicle emissions are the main causes of outdoor pollution in many high-income countries. Cities in particular are susceptible to becoming pollution hotspots due to concentrated populations, energy use, and traffic.

Although the report takes important steps in tailoring policies to local and national conditions, the proposals are not ambitious enough. For example, the report sets out a scenario in which the number of people being exposed to fine particulate matter levels above the WHO guideline in the EU will be less than 10% by 2040. Yet in the USA, average air pollution limits are already below national limits, having declined by 70% since 1970 despite growth in population levels and energy consumption. Setting half-hearted goals as far ahead as 2040 will only widen the gap between the USA and the rest of the world. The report recognises the need for clearly defined responsibilities, reliable data, and a focus on compliance and policy improvement to keep strategies on course. However, long-term goals can be easy to forget or conveniently ignore, particularly if the issue is allowed to slip down the political agenda. Now is not a time to become complacent, but to match the strides being made by the USA in improving air quality.

The Lancet, the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, with coordination from the UN Environment Programme and the World Bank, have united to produce a Commission on Pollution, Health, and Development. The aim of the Commission is to inform key decision makers globally of pollution’s severe and under-reported contribution to the global burden of disease and to present available pollution control strategies and solutions, dispelling the myth of pollution’s inevitability and combating apathy. In a turbulent political climate, environmental pollution must not be allowed to fall by the wayside. Policies should take centre stage and nations must come together in a spirit of mutual cooperation to tackle air pollution.

Building a culture of zero waste in Brussels

On the 22nd June, 2016, Zero Waste Europe held the closing conference of the project “Town to town, people to people – Building a European Culture of Zero Waste” in Brussels. The project aimed at bringing together European municipalities and environmental organisations in the construction of a new zero waste culture.

After the Budapest, Ljubljana and Capannori conferences in November April and May, the final one took place in Brussels on 22nd June. Besides identifying good practices at the local level and helping diffuse them across Europe, this last conference also intended to bring the conclusions of the project to European policy makers.

The conference served to present Zero Waste Europe’s latest case study on the city of Parma. Gabriele Folli, Environment Councillor from the city of Parma, presented their transition towards Zero Waste, explaining how they have managed to move from 45% recycling to 73% in only 4 years and notably reduced their residual waste by 59%. The city is the vivid example that ambitious targets for the circular economy aren’t only feasible but bring environmental, social and economic benefits.

In addition to the presentation from Parma, the closing conference of the project counted on the presence of Annemie Andries, Senior Policy Advisor of OVAM, the Flemish Agency of Waste, who presented the new targets on residual waste that are being envisaged in Flanders. These accompany recycling targets and other measures and aim at pushing for a reduction of the non-reusable and non-recyclable waste.

After her, Alexandre Garcin, Deputy Mayor of Roubaix, presented the transition towards Zero Waste of this city in the North of France. In their case, the city doesn’t have the power to implement separate collection, but is directly working with households, companies, schools and civil society to minimise waste generation and to ensure separate collection of the waste that is produced. Roubaix showed that political will can overcome legal constraints.

Finally, Caroline van der Steen, Director of Stadsecoloog of Bruges, presented their Food Smart City project and the work they are doing to prevent food waste and to find alternative and innovative ways of making the most of food surpluses.

The project and the conference has allowed cities and civil society to exchange good practices on waste prevention, separate collection and other sectorial specific measures. Besides, it has boosted the exchanges and the relations among cities across the EU, truly permitting to build a culture of zero waste that has lead even to the twinning of two cities thanks to their efforts to go zero waste.

EU nations refuse to back limited licence for potentially cancercausing weedkiller

Scores of potentially carcinogenic weedkillers remain for sale across UK and Europe despite European Union nations refusing to back a limited extension of pesticide glyphosate’s licence for use.

A compromise proposal to renew the licence for glyphosate for 12-18 months yesterday failed to win support at the EU executive. Support of 65% was required, but reports said seven states abstained, 20 backed the proposal and one voted against.

Two earlier meetings in 2016 failed to extend the licence for up to 15 years, which led to the compromise and much shorter period being offered.

There are contradictory findings on the carcinogenic risks of glyphosate, which is a component of weedkillers commonly sold by UK and European retailers, which has placed it amid the scrutiny of EU and US politicians, regulators, researchers and consumer groups.

The EU executive hopes a pending study by the EU’s Agency for Chemical Products will allay concerns. European commissioners are due to disucss the matter again today.

The current EU licence for glyphosate expires 30 June.

In the absence of a majority decision, the EU executive could submit its proposal to an appeal committee of political representatives from member states within a month.

If there was again no verdict reached, the European Commission could adopt its own proposal.

Ecosystems more sensitive than previously thought

Three-quarters of EU ecosystems are currently exposed to more nitrogen deposition than they can cope with and nearly one-tenth is receiving too much acid fallout.

Critical loads are scientific estimates of the amounts of pollutants that various ecosystems can tolerate without being harmed. They are sometimes referred to as the limits on what “nature can tolerate.”

If pollutant depositions exceed the critical load limit, damage to sensitive ecosystems will by definition occur sooner or later.

The sensitivity of various ecosystems to exposure to acidifying and eutrophying air pollutants has been monitored and mapped for more than 25 years, and European countries coordinate this work through the Coordination Centre for Effects (CCE) of the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP).

Recently, the CCE has developed a new set of maps, using updated information from the countries’ national experts. By comparing the critical load maps with data on air pollutant deposition, the CCE has also produced maps that show the extent to which European ecosystems are exposed to more air pollutant depositions than they can tolerate in the long term without damage, i.e. where the critical load limits for acidification and eutrophication are exceeded.

This new data shows that the areas at risk are greater than previously assumed – the acidity critical loads are now exceeded in eight per cent of the ecosystems in the EU (7% in the whole of Europe). The area exposed to nitrogen overload now extends to 75 per cent of EU ecosystems (62% in Europe). See table and maps.

Following emission cuts over the last 40 years in the main acidifying air pollutants, especially sulphur dioxide (SO₂), the area of sensitive ecosystems at risk of acidification in Europe has now shrunk to less than 250,000 square kilometres (km2), nearly eight times smaller than it was in 1980.

Progress is however markedly slower for eutrophication, which is caused by excess nitrogen deposition resulting from emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia (NH₃). Here the affected area has shrunk by less than 40 per cent over the same time period, and still covers 1.9 million km2.

Table : Area of ecosystems exposed to excess deposition of eutrophying and acidifying air pollutants in 2010 (km2).

Table : Area of ecosystems exposed to excess deposition of eutrophying and acidifying air pollutants in 2010 (km2).

It should be noted that the maps give a snapshot of deposition versus ability to resist at a given point in time – they do not really reflect the environmental situation right now.

Environmental monitoring, experiments and calculations show that there may be considerable time lags, and that the damage that has already been caused by excess air pollutant inputs will persist for decades, in some places even for centuries.

Clearly there is still a long way to go to actually achieve the long-term environmental objectives of the EU’s 7th Environmental Action Programme, one of which is that there should be no exceedance of the critical loads for acidification and eutrophication. The same objective is also enshrined in the CLRTAP Gothenburg Protocol.

The key legal instrument in the EU for cutting emissions of acidifying and eutrophying air pollutants is the National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) directive, which is currently being revised, and negotiations on new emission reduction targets up to 2030 are now ongoing between EU institutions, with the aim of reaching a final compromise by June 2016.

Christer Ågren
Source: Modelling and mapping of the impacts of atmospheric deposition of nitrogen and sulphur:
CCE Status Report 2015. By J. Slootweg, M. Posch, and J-P Hettelingh (eds.). RIVM Report
2015-0193, Coordination Centre for Effects, the Netherlands. Link: