This article is part of our special report Air Quality 2013.
SPECIAL REPORT / Economic heavyweights France and Germany continue to violate limits of one of Europe’s most common urban pollutants, nitrogen oxides, despite their legal obligations to clean up the air.
At the same time, France, Poland, Romania and the United Kingdom have sought to exempt dozens of coal-fired energy stations from the EU’s pollution regulations for large-combustion plants, allowing the heavy polluters to continue operating at least until the end of 2015.
Health and environmental groups say such examples of timid regulation and uneven enforcement of laws undermine efforts to cut some of Europe’s most pernicious emissions, including nitrogen oxides, or NOx, which affect local as well as trans-European air quality.
Spotty compliance with the rules comes despite a generation of EU efforts to reduce levels of NOx, sulphur dioxide (SO2), mercury and carbon emissions in road transport, industry, energy production, aviation and shipping.
Reports released ahead of the EU’s Green Week, which runs through 7 June, have exposed widespread breaches of pollution laws and their costly effects on healthcare and human lifespans, with some studies saying that bad air causes as many as 500,000 premature deaths per year in the EU – 0.1% of the bloc’s population.
Julia Huscher, a campaigner for the Health and Environment Alliance in Brussels, calls NOx “one of the most health damaging pollutants that we experience today in Europe.”
“It is also important to take the international experiences into account,” said Huscher, an author of a new report on the environmental impact of the EU’s coal-fired power plants, which provide 20% of the bloc’s electricity, slightly less than nuclear.
The report says big polluters have used loopholes to escape compliance while EU policymakers have enacted standards for heavy polluters such as coal-fired power plants that are less rigid than laws in China and the United States.
“High standards for power plants have been introduced in the US and in China, and they should really be the standards that are taken into account for the EU,” Huscher told EURACTIV, adding that “international collaboration and cooperation would be very welcome.”
HEAL’s report estimates that the emissions from Europe’s coal-fired power plants contribute to 18,200 premature deaths each year and cost up to €42.8 billion in healthcare expenses a year from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
Poland: An ‘interesting case’
Campaigners and lawyers who have gone to court to seek enforcement of air quality laws see a host of failures in Europe, including protections for coal plants, the failure to enforce laws, and business pressure against tougher regulations at a time of economic uncertainty.
Poland, for example, has sought exemptions for its older coal-fired power plants under the two-year-old Industrial Emissions Directive, or IED, even though European Commission documents show that Poland had failed to meet the 1 January 2013 deadline to fully transpose the directive into national law.
“Poland is an interesting case here because they are applying a derogation for a transitional national plan under the IED, and they haven’t even implemented it yet under national law,” said Huscher, citing the country’s requests to extend the life of its older coal-fired electricity plants.
A Polish government official in Brussels said singling out his country was unfair. “You cannot change history overnight,” he said on condition of anonymity, referring to infrastructure from the country’s communist era that is still in use.
“We inherited [electricity plants] that must be modernised or replaced, and we are working with our European partners to do just that and it will take time. But telling Poland that it cannot burn coal for electricity would be like telling the French they have to stop using nuclear. Can you imagine? Paris would be dark.”
Other emissions sources
Poland is not alone and energy production is not the only culprit.
France and Germany are among the seven EU states that violate the limits set under the EU’s National Emission Ceilings Directive, the 2001 law that obliges EU states to cut NOx pollution along with sulphur dioxide, ammonia and other emissions that pollute the air and ground.
“The road transport sector is one of the main contributory factors behind the large number of NOx exceedances, as reductions of NOx from this sector over the last two decades have not been as large as originally anticipated,” the European Environment Agency said in its National Emissions Control status report.
“This is partly because the sector has grown more than expected and partly because of the increased penetration of diesel vehicles that have higher NOx emissions than petrol-fuelled vehicles and for which vehicle emission standards have not always delivered the anticipated level of reductions,” the EEA report.
Emissions decline, concern remains
Technological advances using advanced selective catalytic reduction (SCR) of NOx in vehicles, ships and industrial smokestacks are now required or are being phased in under EU and international standards as a part of efforts to cut ozone and other pollution. The technology can cut NOx emissions by as much as 90%.
Overall, NOx emissions have fallen since the 1990s, though at a much slower pace than other leading pollutants. NOx is part of the cocktail or gases and fine particles that create ozone when exposed to solar radiation. Besides its long-term impact on human health, ozone mixes with rain and is carried through the air, affecting areas well beyond its source of emission.
In a legal challenge brought by environmentalists, lawyers for Britain’s environment department have acknowledged that indigenous emissions also contribute to pollution in other EU states, while blaming Ireland and countries across the Channel – namely Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands – for being the main culprits in sulphur and nitrogen deposits in the UK.
But Alan Andrews, a lawyer for the British environmental group ClientEarth, doesn’t buy such arguments. ClientEarth has waged a two-year court battle to force the British government to meet its obligations to reduce NOx pollutants under EU air quality laws.
Britain’s argument “rings rather hollow,” Andrews told EURACTIV in a telephone interview, “especially when you see that the UK government is lobbying to weaken air pollution limits through the [EU] Year of Air review, it’s not taking a leadership position in the process”.
“If the problem is mainly transboundary and they can’t do anything to stop, then they need to engage in the EU process and make sure that delivers a robust and effective system which governs air pollution from all member states and we’re not seeing any signs of that.”