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.