MEPs struggle to define approach to soil, air quality

In preparation for November plenary votes, the Parliament’s Environment Committee debated proposals to improve EU soil and air quality on 11 September. MEPs’ opinions differed considerably on acceptable air pollution levels and on the strictness of soil improvement rules.

  • EU air quality: a dirty secret?

Each year, nearly 400,000 citizens die from air pollution in the EU, according to the Swedish NGO Secretariat on Acid Rain. Moreover, the European Respiratory Society (ERS) has criticised existing and planned EU policy, labelling it a “mismatch” with scientific evidence on air quality.

But MEPs remain divided over how much and how quickly the EU should improve its air quality.

Green and Socialist MEPs are calling for a binding target to be introduced by 2015, setting fine particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) at 15 micrograms (µg) per cubic metre (m3). The Council has called for it to be 25µg/m3, while rapporteur Krahmer is proposing a compromise of 20 micrograms, arguing that a lower threshold cannot be expected given Europe’s high population density. Krahmer also wants to give member states more time to meet targets.

The US has a standard of 15µg/m3, a level endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

MEPs did agree, however, that the Commission should introduce stricter pollution controls on heavy vehicles (euro6 – see EURACTIV 17/07/07). 

  • Soil turmoil

On 11 September, the Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee voted on an opinion in support of a proposal by the European People’s Party (EPP) to reject the Commission’s proposal outright. According to a spokesperson for the EPP, the move was designed to send a message to the Commission that member states should be given a great deal of flexibility in dealing with soil degradation on their territory. 

The spokesperson acknowledged that the Commission is unlikely to withdraw its proposal.

Discussions in the Environment Committee, which took place on the same day, also revealed significant doubts among MEPs about the Commission’s text. Dutch MEP Hans Blokland argued that there should be “no rush to legislate” and that member states need more time to develop better soil management techniques before being able to properly implement EU rules.

The Portuguese Presidency has stated its intention to ensure that a political agreement on the soil text is reached before the end of the year.

The Greens/EFA group criticised the vote in the Legal Affairs Committee, saying that "centre-right MEPs (led by the German EPP delegation) are effectively seeking to deny the fact that European soil needs to be protected at EU-level".

Air and soil quality are addressed by the Commission's 6th Environment Action Programme (6th EAP - see our LinksDossier) and are considered cornerstones of its environmental policy agenda.

Council and Parliament have clashed over the pollution limits set out in the Air Quality Directive, with MEP and Parliament rapporteur Holger Krahmer, a German Liberal, pushing for higher fine-particle thresholds than the Council (see our LinksDossier). There is some speculation that the dossier, currently in the second-reading phase, may enter into conciliation. 

In contrast, Spanish centre-right MEP Cristina Gutiérrez-Cortines, Parliament's rapporteur for the soil dossier, has sided with member states, who demand a great deal of flexibility in dealing with issues such as soil degradation. 

The Commission's proposed framework directive on soil is part of its Soil Strategy (EURACTIV 22/09/09).

  • Oct 2007: Reports on soil and air quality to be adopted in the Parliament's ENVI Committee.
  • Nov 2007: Parliament plenary session - second reading on air quality; first reading on soil.

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