Parliament approves Industrial Emissions Directive

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The European Parliament yesterday (7 July) endorsed a new directive strengthening pollution limits that industrial installations will have to comply with.

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.

Portuguese MEP João Ferreira (European United Left/Nordic Green Left) called the new legislation "an important step towards better environmental and health protection particularly for people living and working in industrial areas". 

"Crucially, this report acknowledges the specifications for technological adaptation across various countries and regions. It also opens up the possibility for a normative rather than a market approach to emissions reductions and allows member states to maintain or adopt more stringent anti-pollution measures than those laid down in this text," he said.

Ferreira added that complimentary measures to modernise production were now needed, particularly in poorer regions.

The European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) argued that four or five years for implementing new Best Available Techniques is "much shorter than the EU chemical industry's typical investment cycles". It pointed out that chemical plants are among the most expensive industrial installations, requiring longer payback time for investment.

But the chemicals industry said that "justified flexibility" will still be possible, meaning that local authorities will be able to grant some derogations if justified by local conditions or local processes.

The 1996 Directive on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) introduced a permit system to prevent and limit pollution from large-scale industrial installations. Sectors covered include everything from metals, chemicals and paper to processed food, oil refineries and large-scale pig and poultry farms.

The European Commission initiated an overhaul of the directive in 2007 to address abuses of built-in flexibility mechanisms. It proposed to recast seven existing air pollution directives into a single law.

On 10 March 2009, the European Parliament adopted a first-reading position on the new law. MEPs called for a 'European safety net' involving legally-binding minimum emission limit values not be exceeded by any installation in order to avoid widespread exemptions (EURACTIV 11/03/09).

On 25 June 2009, EU environment ministers reached a political agreement, giving national authorities a transition period for implementing national ceilings for NOx, SO2 and dust (EURACTIV 26/06/09).

Faced with stiff opposition from national capitals to the minimum emissions limit, the Parliament's environment committee dropped the concept of a European safety net in its second-reading vote in May 2010 (EURACTIV 05/05/10). 

On 16 June, the EU institutions reached a compromise agreement on the text (EURACTIV 22/06/10).

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