Environment ministers want flexible air pollution targets

Kaspars Gerhards, Latvia's environment minister, and Commissioner Karmenu Vella at the press conference after today's meeting. [Council of the European Union]

Environment ministers on Monday (15 June) demanded flexibility in meeting EU air quality targets, after dropping a cap on methane emissions from draft pollution rules.

Governments were split on whether the proposed reduction goals for 2030 should be legally binding or non-binding. Poland demanded the targets be pushed back to 2040 and Hungary said the bill should be scrapped, while others called for review clauses to be inserted in the legislation.

The revised National Emissions Ceiling Directive (NEC) puts controls on different types of air pollution in each member state. Its overarching goal is to cut the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution by half by 2030. 400,000 people die each year from air pollution in the EU, according to the European Environment Agency.

The United Kingdom, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Hungary welcomed the ditching of methane ceilings from the bill, which EURACTIV reported on last week, arguing that the cap overlapped with EU commitments to cut greenhouse gases.

Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella said non-binding targets would be pointless. “This would essentially deprive the policy of its content,” he said.

He told ministers that they should keep the cap on methane. The proposed revision to the NEC Directive is the first time the European Commission has tried to put limit methane emissions, 40% of which in the EU comes from agriculture.

>>Read: Governments ditch EU methane limits

But Vella added that the European Commission could back “clearly defined and tightly constrained provisions for flexibility”.

Two flexibility proposals

The United Kingdom and France want flexibility until 2030 based on the United Nations Gothenburg Protocol. It would allow a target to be adjusted to take account of unforeseen circumstances.

Under the European Commission’s plans, flexibility based on Gothenburg is only allowed up to 2020. Belgium and Sweden signalled support for some limited flexibility.

The Czech Republic put forward a separate flexibility proposal. The plan, backed by Hungary, Poland, Estonia, and the Slovak Republic, would allow governments to make up emissions shortfalls in one gas, with surplus reductions in another.

The focus of the Czech plan is on energy production. Should, for example, a planned nuclear plant not be built, the targets should be re-evaluated without the country being punished.

“Complete agreement [between member states] will never be possible, said Jan Kriz, Deputy Minister for the Environment. “That’s why we tabled a proposal for more flexibility.”

“If member states prove they can cut emissions in other areas, they should be allowed to partially cut other targets,” he said, before adding the targets should be binding to give certainty to investors.

“We think that the existing flexibility mechanisms set out in the Gothenburg protocol are sufficient,” said Germany’s Jochen Flasbarth, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for the Environment.

“We don’t want any more wide-ranging measures,” he said. We see the risk of this undermining current commitments”.

Non-binding targets

Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, Poland were among the governments demanding that the targets should be indicative and not-binding.

Spain also said that the 2030 targets were too ambitious for the country to reach in time. Bulgaria said it expected funding to hit the targets.

Poland warned that that imposing additional environmental costs could cause a recession and said the deadline should be pushed back to 2040.

Polish citizens would bear the highest compliance costs in the EU said Marcin Korolec, Poland’s Secretary of State in its Ministry of the Environment. It was equivalent to €14.46 euros per capita per year, he said. The average cost across the EU ranged between €0 and €8 annually.

Hungary called for a completely new discussion on “an absolutely new basis”. “We cannot accept the approach of the proposal,” said Zsolt Németh, Hugary’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs

He said the reduction on methane and ammonia would hit agriculture in Hungary, where production is far behind the levels it was at in the 1980s under communism.

Negotiations with Parliament

Today’s meeting is a step towards member states agreeing a common position on the bill. Vella said that if a position could be agreed soon, negotiations with the European Parliament could begin in September.

The European Parliament is also considering the draft bill. Tomorrow its Environment Committee will vote on a report on the bill by Julie Girling (ECR), the lead MEP on it, ahead of a plenary vote expected in September.

EURACTIV understands that the MEPs in charge of shepherding the bill through the committee – the shadow rapporteurs – have agreed that targets for 2025 should be binding, and that methane emissions should be included.

If that position is backed by the whole Parliament, it will set up a fight with the Council over the bill.

But a “significant minority” of MEPs in the Environment Committee are against including methane. The Agriculture Committee also recently voted in favour of an opinion on dropping the ban.

After the vote of the full Parliament, talks with the Council of Ministers will begin. Both institutions must agree an identical text, before it can become law.

Louise Duprez, senior policy officer for air pollution at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), said: “EU ministers seem to be more interested in the number of ‘Get-out-of-jail-free’ cards they receive than in solving the problem of air pollution.

“Providing flexibilities and only indicative targets would constitute a death-blow to the long-term fight against air pollution.”

British Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder agreed. “We cannot wait until it is too late before taking action to improve air quality. Binding targets for 2025 will be a crucial step on the way to meeting the EU’s 2030 pollution limits, she said.

“Every year that national governments fail to meet these targets will mean thousands more unnecessary deaths from air pollution in Europe.”

Member states reassert sovereignty

The demand for greater flexibility for national governments in meeting EU-set targets echoed the compromise reached by EU leaders last October on the 2030 climate and energy package.

Heads of state and government agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2030.

They would increase energy efficiency and their share of renewables by at least 27% by 2030. But that EU-wide target would not be binding at national level, after some member states pushed to retain authority over their energy mix.

>>Read: EU leaders adopt ‘flexible’ energy and climate targets for 2030

Air pollution has different particulate matter (PM) components – smoke, dirt and dust form coarse particles known as PM10 and metals and toxic exhaust from smelting, vehicle exhaust, power plants and refuse burning forming fine particles called PM2.5.

The 2008 Air Quality Directive aimed at streamlining and tightening EU legislation dealing with pollution and air standards. It is now under review.

The directive obliges member states must cut exposure to fine particulate matter by an average of 20% by 2020, based on 2010 levels.

Many of the policies grow out of a 2005 strategy on air pollution, which sought to cut sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 82%, nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 60%, volatile organic compounds by 51%, ammonia (NH3) by 27%, and primary fine particulates by 59% compared to the levels of 2000.

Health advocates say the cost of cutting emissions through better smokestack scrubbers, cleaner-burning vehicles and a shift to renewable fuels would be more than offset by savings in treating complications of bad air.

Part of the package is the Nation Emissions Ceiling (NEC) Directive. It sets post-2020 national emissions ceilings (NEC) for six air pollutants, such as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx).

  • 16 June: European Parliament's Environment Committee meeting to vote on Girling report
  • September: Council and Parliament expected to adopt position on draft NEC Directive.

European Environmental Bureau

European Commission

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