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“We need clean air.”

This summer the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) will present a new report “Towards cleaner air”, an assessment of the current scientific knowledge on air pollution based on 35 years of research, monitoring and policy developments.

Some of the report’s key findings have been published in a brief summary for policymakers.

It makes for interesting reading. Despite some significant progress in reducing the emissions of many pollutants, it notes that problems still exist, and that additional action is urgently needed.

Each year, air pollution causes nearly half a million premature deaths in the EU. It is also the cause of allergies and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, which result in extra medication and hospitalisations as well as millions of lost working days.

But it is not only people that suffer from air pollution. Excess deposition of acidifying and eutrophying air pollutants damages nature and biodiversity.

Agricultural crops, forest trees and even man-made materials, including monuments and buildings of high cultural value, are all suffering.

Air pollution is transboundary in nature – it can be carried hundreds and even thousands of kilometres by winds in only a few days. Many cities have taken action to improve local air quality, for example by banning cars from city centres or improving public transport.

This is both necessary and good. But even in big cities a significant share of the pollution emanates from sources outside of the city, or even outside of the country.

This is why local and national measures have to be complemented by international action at European level, and – when it comes to dealing with ground-level ozone – even at the northern hemispheric level.

This is also why the EU has a National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) directive that is designed to make all member states contribute to improvements in air quality in a fair and cost-effective manner.

The current NEC directive dates back to 2001 and sets national emission caps for 2010. It is now subject to revision, with the aim of setting new national emission reduction targets up to the year 2030.

Despite all the negative impacts of air pollution and the fact that most member states are struggling with bad air quality, many national governments – including those of large countries such as the UK, France, Poland and Italy – refuse to accept the fair (and actually quite unambitious) targets of the original proposal.

In particular, they want to lower their national targets for ammonia reductions.

And they want to scrap the methane targets. As agriculture is responsible for 90 per cent of ammonia emissions and half of methane emissions, it is obvious that these positions are being pushed by organisations primarily representing the interests of industrial livestock farming.

Some member states are also seeking greater flexibility, which in this context is a euphemism for a greater right to pollute. Paradoxically, in most cases, the countries that argue for lower national emission reduction targets and greater flexibility are the same ones that are currently the subject of infraction measures by the Commission because they have failed to comply with the EU’s minimum air quality standards. In essence this means that they have failed to protect the health of their citizens.

What we need now is a new NEC directive with targets that ensure a high level of protection for health and the environment, resulting in reduced health bills, improved productivity, longer and healthier lives and a richer natural environment for the benefit of us all. We need clean air.

Christer Ågren

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