Clean air strategy seeks balance between health and business concerns

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The strategy will cost Europe some €7.1 billion every year, down from the €12 billion initially proposed by Environment Commissioner Dimas. But the health benefits alone will be fivefold, he said.

The level of ambition of a proposed strategy to cut air pollution has had to be lowered after harsh internal negotiations with pro-business colleagues, Environment Commissioner Dimas said as he presented his plan on 21 September.

The cost of the strategy is now estimated at 7.1 billion euros per annum until 2020, a significant decrease from the 11.6 billion initially envisaged before the summer when the plan was postponed by the College of Commissioners. 

“It is a compromise,” Dimas admitted as he presented the strategy in Brussels on Wednesday (21 September). “We had to further decrease our level of ambition,” he said, adding that he “tried very hard to bring the benefits to the fore in the discussion” with colleagues.

According to estimates from Dimas’s environment directorate, the strategy would help reduce the number of deaths caused by air pollution from ultra fine dust particles and ozone “from 370,000 a year in 2000 to 230,000 in 2020”. The related health benefits [fewer premature deaths, less sickness, fewer hospital admissions, improved labour productivity etc.] would be “worth at least €42 billion per year”. This is five times as much as the costs, Dimas underlined.

Pollution reduction targets had to be scaled down compared to the original plan proposed by Dimas. Targets for reducing average concentrations of ultra fine dust particles – also known as or PM 2.5 – in ambient air were brought down to 75% instead of 80%. For ozone, concentrations would need to be reduced by only 60% instead of the 80% initially foreseen, Dimas indicated.


Main aspects of the strategy:

The strategy focuses on reducing emissions from five key pollutants as well as ground-level ozone by 2020:

  • Particulate Matter (PM): These fine dust particles are either emitted directly, (e.g by cars, diesel especially) or formed by a chemical reaction of other ‘primary’ pollutants (SO2, NOx, NH3). Particulates with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometer (PM 2.5) are focussing most of the attention as they are “the real bad guy, the big killer,” a Commission official pointed out. But PM 10 (diameter of less than 10 micrometer) will also be targeted. 
  • Ground level ozone: formed by Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) and Volatile Organic Components (VOCs) which can be lethal to human health and cause heavy pollution in forests and agriculture.
  • Ammonia (NH3): emitted mainly from animal wastes and fertilisers
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx): causes acid rains, eutrophication (alguae excess in lakes and ponds) and ground-level ozone
  • Sulphur dioxide (SO2): mainly formed by the combustion of coal and oil and creates acid deposits
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): emitted by paints, varnishes, solvents, transport fuels and are a key component in formation of ground-level ozone.

In order to tackle these pollutants, the strategy proposes broadening out clean air laws to more sectors or deepening legislative outreach into sectors already covered.

  • Agriculture: this is where the strategy brings in new elements with proposals to reduce ammonia emissions from fertilisers and manure due to be submitted by the Commission at an undisclosed time. “We are now at a point where you cannot envisage improvements in air quality without improvement from agriculture,” a Commission official explained.
  • Transport: More is to be done on shipping emissions in particular (Nitrogen oxide, Sulfur dioxide) but also on aviation and road vehicles. The Euro5 proposal on emissions from passenger cars is to be tabled before the end of 2005, a Commission official announced. One of the main aspects of Euro5 will be to introduce emission ceilings on very fine dust particles (Particulate Matter or PM 2.5) from diesel engines. 
  • Industry: Including small combustion plants in air pollution cutting schemes is the main novelty here. But there are also plans to harmonise standards for domestic combustion appliances as well as for reducing emissions of volatile organic components (VOCs) at fuel stations.

In addition to keeping up with tougher US standards on PM, the Commission hopes to set standards that other countries in the world will follow, eventually giving EU businesses a competitive advantage by enticing them to adopt cleaner technology.

Finally, in keeping with the Commission’s general drive to reduce or simplify regulation, the strategy proposes to boil down existing air quality legislation to a single legal instrument, the Ambient Air Quality Directive. 

According to Commission sources, Internal Market Commissioner Mc Creevy was the biggest opponent of the plan, saying public health issues are "not a matter for environmentalists" and that "air pollution is not a European concern". The same sources said that the inclusion of ammonia from agriculture into the plan was a hard-won victory for Dimas.

In a September position paper on Euro5, the European carmaker association ACEA said clean air measures proposed by the Commission's environment DG under the CAFE programme were based on incorrect cost estimates and should be revised. In particular, it confirms that setting a PM limit level of 5 mg/km will "force the fitment of diesel particle filters" which currently come at a high price for consumers. Generally speaking, ACEA says the clean air strategy does not fit with the need to improve the competitiveness of the EU car industry as presently discussed under the CARS 21 initiative.

Christian Pallière at the European Fertilizer Manufacturers Association (EFMA) says the efforts to reduce pollution from ammonia is something EFMA have been working on with the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) for several years. "For us, what's new is that agriculture will now come under the EU CAFE (Clean Air for Europe) programme". But he says "it is more an evolution than a revolution". Fertilisers in themselves are not pollutants, Pallière points out. "It is their excessive use and bad handling which can be". 

The European Environmental Bureau criticised the strategy for being "far too weak" and not going far enough in improving air quality. The EEB is especially critical that no legal obligation is set on reducing concentrations of fine particles (PM 2.5) and that only an indicative target is being set.

"A legally binding requirement to make real reductions on particles emissions would have been the only right answer. Instead, the Commission decided to postpone such target setting for many years and make the directive into a toothless tiger," says Kerstin Meyer, air pollution policy officer at the EEB.

The European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E) is also disappointed with the proposal, saying that there is "little to welcome here". T&E Director Jos Dings: "In the field of transport, it is not a strategy - it is a collection of restatements of existing policies and some weak promises". What Dings finds more worrying is that policy measures linked to the strategy, such as the Euro5 standards for passenger cars, "also look terribly weak" and are the result of the Commission listening to "lowest-common-denominator industry groups".

The 'Thematic Strategy on air pollution', was due for adoption by the College of Commissioners in July but was postponed due to pressure from Commissioners who argued Europe's economic woes need to be tackled before environmental concerns (EURACTIV, 5 July 2005).

Following a July orientation debate in the College of Commissioners, Dimas was given permission to present his air pollution and other environmental strategies before the end of 2005 (EURACTIV, 22 July 2005). 

There are seven 'thematic strategies' due to be adopted under the Commission's 6th environmental action programme of 2002.

  • The Ambient Air Quality Directive proposal will be submitted to the Parliament and Council "immediately"
  • The Euro5 proposal to cut pollution from new cars and vans will be tabled "later in 2005" and will apply as of 2010. A similar proposal applicable to trucks and buses will follow "later" 
  • A revision of the National Emissions Ceilings Directive will be submitted to bring it in line with new objectives of the strategy

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