The European Parliament today (23 November) voted in favour of new EU rules to cap air pollution, which will curb the single largest environmental cause of premature death in urban Europe.
Almost nine out of ten European city dwellers breathe air that is harmful to their health, though the continent’s air quality is slowly improving, the European Environment Agency (EEA) said in a report published on Wednesday.
The number of premature deaths linked to air pollution in the EU every year is estimated at 400,000. Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella said that the tougher emissions limits would halve that number.
MEPs in Strasbourg backed the National Emissions Ceiling Directive, which was almost ditched by the European Commission under its better regulation strategy. MEPs and member states had struggled to reach agreement on the bill but managed to reach a deal after it was threatened by the axe.
The lead MEP on the bill Julie Girling, a UK Conservative, said that the law was saved after “a real fight from this house to keep it on the table.”
Girling said that the bill was given added political impetus by scandals such as Dieselgate, but conceded that concessions had been made to secure the agreement from both the Council and Parliament. Both institutions must approve an identical text before a draft bill can become law.
“It is not a perfect agreement but, as a Brit working in Brussels, I am not sure there is any such thing,” she said.
“The UK should be a leader in the fight to tackle bad air quality. I hope, post-Brexit, that the UK continues to work with its European partners on issues such as this.”
Vella said, “Bad air is an invisible killer. The European Parliament voted today by a big majority in favour of the deal struck with member states in the Council, which is expected to follow suit.
“As a result, we will see major reductions in five pollutants thus improving our quality of life and reducing health costs. “
The pollutants to be capped are sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC), ammonia (NH3), and fine particulates.
Methane escapes limits
The European Commission had pushed to cap methane, which would have been the first time the gas had been curbed at EU level.
That effort was defeated in the face of opposition from national governments and some MEPs.
Methane is a global warming gas and agriculture is a major methane emitter. Opponents to its inclusion said that it was already covered in EU greenhouse gas reduction targets.
Commissioner Vella had said that it was time for sectors that have so far done little will need to do more. […]Efforts are needed from all sectors, including the agriculture industry.”
The European Environmental Bureau said the caps had been watered down from the original proposal. This would result in nearly 10,000 extra premature deaths than had the bill remained unaltered.
It also criticised the Council for forcing the Parliament to accept “flexibilities” in the directive. Member states could average their emissions out over a number of years, which would make the limits harder to enforce, the NGO said.
Louise Duprez, EEB senior policy officer, said, “This is good news, but far from sufficient and will not put an end to premature deaths and diseases caused by air pollution in the EU.
“These rules will achieve even less if member states fail to swiftly implement them and the European Commission does not fulfil its role as a watchdog and bring countries to account when they abuse the flexibilities in the new laws.”
GUE/NGL MEP Kateřina Konečná said, “This report was a missed opportunity. The final text is a mere shadow of a much more ambitious text we had approved. The negotiations were influenced by a feeling of panic especially as it happened when the Brexit referendum results came out.”
“Our original goal was to diminish deaths from anthropogenic air pollution by 52% compared to 2005 but the proposal was watered down to a reduction of 49.6%. The Parliament’s red line should have been 50%,” Konečná added.
The EEA report said data from monitoring stations across Europe showed that in 2014 around 85% of the urban population was exposed to fine particulate matter (PM) – microscopic specks of dust and soot caused mainly by burning fossil fuels – at levels deemed harmful to health by the World Health Organization (WHO).
PM10, particulate matter measuring less than 10 microns, or 10 millionths of a metre, can lodge in the airways, causing respiratory problems.
More perilous still are smaller PM2.5 particles which can enter the lungs and even the bloodstream.
The report said that in 2014, 16% of city dwellers in the EU were exposed to PM10 levels above the EU target, while 8% were exposed to PM2.5 levels exceeding the threshold.
“Emission reductions have led to improvements in air quality in Europe, but not enough to avoid unacceptable damage to human health and the environment. We need to tackle the root causes of air pollution, which calls for a fundamental and innovative transformation of our mobility, energy and food systems,” said EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx.
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 National Emissions Ceiling (NEC) Directive. The original proposal set post-2020 national emissions ceilings (NEC) for six air pollutants, such as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx).