Parliament softens EU clean-air law

The European Parliament has allowed member states more time and flexibility on meeting clean-air standards, bringing concern to the Commission and environmental groups.

The Commission said that it was “concerned” after the Parliament voted on 26 September to weaken a proposed directive on ambient air quality which is the cornerstone of its clean-air strategy.

New proposals were put forward by the Commission last year to cut emissions of fine-dust particles, ozone and other air pollutants harmful to human health. 

At the time, Brussels estimated that the measures could reduce the number of premature deaths “from 370,000 a year in 2000 to 230,000 in 2020” for an estimated cost of 7.1 billion euro per annum. Potential benefits in terms of reduced sickness and hospitalisation costs were valued at tens of billion of euro per year.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said that he was “disappointed” with the Parliament’s amendments which he said “appear to contradict” the objective of protecting citizens’ health “by weakening the legislation we have proposed in some key respects”. Dimas said that he was concerned in particular with two of the following amendments:

  • One extending the deadline to reduce concentration limits of fine dust particles (PM10) beyond 2010, and;
  • another that weakens the daily-limit concentrations of PM10 by allowing cities or regions to exceed them up to 55 days per year instead of the 45 initially foreseen.

On a more positive note, the Parliament voted to reduce concentration of PM10 to 33 millionths of gramme per cubic metre (33µg/m3) on average from 2010, down from the 40µg/m3 initially proposed by Brussels.

Regarding smaller dust particles (PM2.5), which are the most harmful to human lungs, the Parliament was of the opinion that it was too early to set limit values for now “given the current state of scientific knowledge”. MEPs instead suggested an indicative target of 20µg/m3 from 2010 that will become legally-binding in 2015.

The rapporteur on the directive, Holger Krahmer MEP (Germany, ALDE), said that the Parliament had "found a balanced compromise between strict health protection and the necessary flexibility for member states". 

Krahmer added that the Commission proposal lacked measures to tackle pollution at source. "The largest percentage of pollutants is emitted from sources that have not been regulated so far, such as small combustion plants, agriculture or ships. It is time the Commission realises this and presents proposals," said Krahmer.

Speaking for the EPP-ED group - the largest in the Parliament -, French MEP Françoise Grossetête also believes pollution should be tackled at the source. "Pollution moves and reaches territories that are not themselves sources of pollution. Contrary to what is written in the report, the high level of air pollution is not always in urban zones with high population density."

Grossetête added that pollution-cutting strategies should also be consistent with climate change policies. As an example, she said cutting emissions of particulate matter from cars at the same time tends to increase CO2 emissions causing climate change. "There are many contradictions. We therefore need flexibility."

The Green group in the Parliament described the Parliament's vote as "a scandal". "The Parliament has voted to weaken the existing air quality rules in Europe despite clear evidence of the severe health consequences of air pollution," said Finnish Green MEP and vice-chair of the Environment Committee Satu Hassi.

Hassi said that the proposed limit values for PM10 fell "far short of the limit values recommended by the World Health Organization. "For the pollutant PM2.5, Californian and even US federal air quality rules require limit values that are almost twice as strict as those being recommended by the EP," she pointed out.

In a parallel vote, the Parliament gave its backing to an EU strategy aimed at improving the environmental record of cities. It also supported a report by Dorette Corbey MEP on the proposed thematic strategy on air pollution. However, both these reports were non-binding.

The proposal to revise the directive on ambient air quality is part of a wider 'Thematic strategy on air pollution' put forward by the Commission in September 2005.

The most striking part of the strategy is the proposal to tackle pollution from transport (cars, ships, and planes) agriculture and small industrial plants that are currently not covered by existing EU clean-air legislation.

  • The report on ambient air quality will now be forwarded for adoption by the EU Council of Ministers.
  • 2015: planned revision of the directive 

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