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Tougher air pollution targets needed

Revision of EU’s key legal instrument for improving air quality – the NEC directive – is currently the subject of intense negotiations.

Starting in late February, representatives of the EU’s three legislative bodies (the Council, Parliament and Commission) have held a series of trialogue meetings over spring and early summer to negotiate a revised National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) directive with the aim of reaching a final compromise by June 2016.

While the Commission and the Parliament aim for an ambition level that would result in a 52 per cent reduction in premature deaths from air pollution between 2005 and 2030, the Council (i.e. the member states) argues for a significantly less ambitious target of 48 per cent. The latter would in effect result in an additional 16,000 annual premature deaths in 2030, on top of the more than a quarter of a million annual premature deaths that are expected to remain if the Commission’s proposal was to be implemented.

According to the environmental group European Environmental Bureau (EEB), approximately 130,000 EU citizens could die prematurely between 2016 and 2030 if the emission reduction targets for air pollutants are weakened in line with the Council’s position.

The Council’s 48-per-cent target was the outcome of mismanaged negotiations under the Luxembourg Presidency last year, when many member states got away with very unambitious emission reduction commitments (ERC). For example, Denmark, Bulgaria, Greece and Romania got away with weakening their ERCs for all five pollutants, and Italy and the UK managed to lower their national targets for four of the pollutants. (See table in AN 1/16, page 9.)

Now it is up to the Parliament and the Commission, hopefully with support from the Dutch Presidency, to push member states to accept more ambitious ERCs, especially for particulate matter (PM) and ammonia (NH₃) – pollutants that have particularly high adverse effects on human health. Ammonia is also the main culprit for ecosystem damage through eutrophication.

A possible compromise that would achieve a 50 per cent reduction in premature deaths has ben put forward by the Dutch Presidency to the member states. This would among other things simply that big member countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the UK, which are also responsible for large shares of the emissions, would need to accept slightly stricter ERCs, especially for PM and ammonia.

Another issue of debate is that the Parliament is also pushing for binding targets for 2025, compared to the Commission’s proposed indicative targets, while the Council only wants some sort of vague guiding figures for 2025. Having binding intermediary targets would obviously better ensure that countries really are on track to meet their 2030 ERCs.

When the Council agreed its position in December 2015, member states removed the ozone precursor methane completely from the directive. However, both the Commission and the Parliament want to keep it in, although a majority in the Parliament supported exclusion of the main source of methane emissions from agriculture, i.e. from livestock’s enteric fermentation, which in 2005 contributed more than a third of the EU’s total methane emissions. A compromise has been tabled that would reduce the EU’s overall methane ERC from 33 to 20 per cent, which equals the result of excluding enteric methane.

Other issues of contention include among others the five additional flexibilities introduced by the Council in order to make it easier for member states to comply; to what extent emission abatement measures listed in Annex III should be binding or just voluntary; the timing and extent of reporting and review; and public access to information and justice.

A fourth, possibly final, trialogue meeting on the revision of the NEC directive is due in early June.

Christer Ågren

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