NGOs: Rules on national emission ceilings are under threat

Factory pollution [I. Barbour/Flickr]

Flexibilities in emissions ceilings set for individual member states put EU air quality ambitions at risk, according to green NGOs.

When the European Commission proposed its Clean Air Package in 2013, including a directive on the reduction of national emissions of certain pollutants, some flexibility schemes were envisaged with a view to facilitate member state progress towards improved air quality.

The directive sets post-2020 national emissions ceilings (NEC) for six air pollutants, such as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx).

Among potential flexibilities, and under certain conditions, member states may compensate insufficient reductions of some pollutants emitted by the maritime shipping sector by emissions cuts from other sectors.

As suggested by the recent publication of a study commissioned by the EU executive, additional flexibility schemes outside those already included in the proposal are apparently being discussed.

For example, it would be possible for member states to compensate excessive emissions of one pollutant by greater emissions reductions for another pollutant, whatever the sector.

The mechanism would work according to a weight-based system that determines equivalencies between pollutants on the basis of their contribution to mortality rates.

According to the study, 1 tonne of PM2.5 emissions causes, on average, the same premature mortality as 3.36 tonnes of sulfur dioxide (SO2), or 14.9 tonnes of NOx.  Thus, excessive emissions of 1 tonne PM2.5 could be compensated by extra emission reductions of 14.9 tonnes of NOx.

Deviations from emission ceilings set for each pollutant could be limited to 10% for example.

But green NGOs, such as the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), are skeptical about the mechanism, especially in light of its complexity. They also fear that the 10% deviation limit could even be raised, leading to abuse.

Talking to EURACTIV, Arne Fellermann, EEB policy officer for air quality, stressed that such a mechanism, and the required calculation of substituted emissions, would create a significant burden for the Commission, and is also contrary to current EU efforts to simplify administrative requirements.

In addition, the scheme could lead to a weakening of targets: if a member state overachieves emission cuts for one pollutant, the incentive to reduce atmospheric releases of another pollutant would vanish.

Such a trend could be amplified if, when negotiating NEC levels, member states push for weak targets for the individual pollutants, which will then be easily exceeded.

Fellerman concludes: “We could end up having an ineffective law to fight air pollution. On the one hand, member states will have to respect limits for air pollutants and, on the other, they will be able to use a complicated flexibility scheme that allows them to exceed these limits. It’s an open invitation to abuse, which would make enforcement almost impossible.”

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.

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