The endorsement of the new Industrial Emissions Directive brings to an end a long battle between industry, which warned of competitiveness losses, and environmentalists who argue that cleaning Europe's industry is a prerequisite for sustainable production.
The new law sets stricter limits on the pollutants that industrial installations are allowed to spew into the air, water and soil. It limits atmospheric pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and dust, which are responsible for acid rain and smog and cause respiratory diseases like asthma.
It combines seven existing air pollution directives, notably the Large Combustion Plant Directive and the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive, which obliges around 52,000 industrial and agricultural installations to obtain environmental permits.
Installations will have until 2016 to comply with the stricter limits. The measurement stick is the implementation of "best available techniques" (BATs), or the most effective technologies that can provide high levels of environmental protection while balancing cost and benefit.
Member states will, however, be able to deviate from the standard for certain technical reasons or local circumstances if they can prove that the costs of implementing the standards would be disproportionate compared to environmental benefits. The modification was insisted upon by MEPs, who wanted to ensure that member states are not tempted to bend the rules without good reasons to do so.
"It wasn't possible to achieve more," said MEP Holger Krahmer (Germany, ALDE), who steered the legislation through Parliament. He said the compromise is an improvement on existing regulation in terms of environmental protection and creating a level playing field for European industrial areas.
Transition period for coal plants
Nevertheless, the Parliament had to swallow long transition periods for large combustion plants (LCPs) to seal the deal.
As a result of pressure from the UK, Italy and Poland, which are home to a large cohort of ageing coal plants, the text states that member states can put in place "transitional national plans" to give LCPs until July 2020 to meet the requirements.
In addition, older plants can continue to operate beyond this date if their operating hours do not exceed 17,500 hours after 2016 and if they close by the end of 2023.
But Krahmer retorted that national plans are nothing more than a licence for a number of outdated coal-fired power plants to continue polluting for another decade. "This is also grossly unfair on the member states who took early action to meet the requirements," he said.
The final text will now have to be rubber-stamped by national governments to become law.