Spectre of better regulation haunts air pollution bill

MEP Julie Girling voted against her own report on air pollution ceilings. [juliegirling.com]

A British Conservative member of European Parliament yesterday (15 July) took the unusual step of voting against her own report, after MEPs in the Environment Committee backed stronger air pollution limits.

Julie Girling’s report on the National Emissions Ceiling Directive was narrowly passed by the committee. 38 voted in favour, 28 against, and two abstained.

The revised NEC Directive puts controls on different types of air pollution in each member state. Its overarching goal is to cut the number of premature deaths – estimated as 400,000 a year in the EU – caused by air pollution by half by 2030.

She said that “unreasonable targets” from a coalition of leftist and liberal MEPs could derail future talks with the Council of Ministers over the bill.

Both Parliament and the Council must agree an identical text before it can become EU law. Before then, the report must be passed by an October vote of the full Parliament.

Environment ministers on 15 June demanded flexibility in meeting EU air quality targets, after dropping a cap on methane emissions from their version of the draft pollution rules.

>>Read: Environment ministers want flexible air pollution targets

The air quality legislation narrowly escaped being axed by Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, the executive’s “better regulation” chief.

It was slated for the chop because it was initially seen as too difficult to secure agreement between the two EU institutions. In December, Timmermans said the rules would be changed during three-way talks between the institutions to make a deal more likely.

Girling said, “This legislative process has been overshadowed throughout by the Commission’s threat to withdraw their proposal and their stated intention to hold a review after the European Parliament adopts its initial position.

“I believe my original proposal presented the right balance between ambitious targets and realistic goals. I fear that we are now embarking on a long and protracted negotiation, rather than taking the quicker route of improved health for EU citizens.”

>>Read: MEPs debate saved air rules before Circular Economy inquest

The Commission’s Better Regulation strategy calls for robust impact assessment and the cutting on necessary costs on business. The British are vocal supporters of the initiative, which they see as part of a series of needed EU reforms.

The Cameron government has argued that the stronger targets have not been sufficiently assessed for their impact and risk being too much of a burden on businesses. Girling echoed those concerns.

Liberal Democrat Catherine Bearder, ALDE’s shadow rapporteur, criticised Girling’s decision.

She said, “It’s very disappointing to see the Conservatives opposing stronger air pollution limits, including Julie Girling who voted against her own report.

“If people were being forced to drink dirty water rather than breathing dirty air, no-one would be questioning the need to take action.”

Binding targets

National ceilings for six pollutants (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, methane, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds) were set for countries to reach by 2030.

MEPs also called for mercury to be added to the list of pollutants. Most mercury emissions in the EU are a result of burning coal.

They backed binding targets for 2025 for all the pollutants, except methane. Methane targets were delayed until 2030 to give the agriculture sector time to adapt.

The European Commission’s original proposal was the first time the executive has tried to cap ammonia and methane. The Parliament bill is stronger that the Commission’s proposal, which did not have binding 2025 targets or mercury included on the pollutant list.

Agriculture causes 40% of the EU’s methane pollution and 95% of ammonia pollution. A strong farming lobby is pushing back against the targets.

The Parliament’s Agriculture Committee recently voted for an opinion that called for the methane and ammonia targets to be dropped from the legislation.

Girling, who represents South West England, a rural area, and Gibraltar, said the targets for ammonia and methane risked penalising farmers.

Their concerns had been sidelined by urban MEPs, a press release from her European Conservatives and Reformist Group said.

Environment and health campaigners were pleased with the stricter rules.

Louise Duprez, senior policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau said: “Today’s vote is good news for all of Europe’s citizens. The European Parliament’s Environment Committee wants to tackle air pollution and help bring about healthier and longer lives, lower health bills and greater economic productivity.”

“Today’s vote is therefore welcome news for all those suffering from heart and lung disease and parents concerned about the health of their children,” said Anne Stauffer, deputy director of the Health and Environment Alliance.

>>Read: Better regulation coverage

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).

Jean-Claude Juncker, the new President of the European Commission, pledged to refocus the EU executive on the bigger political issues of the day and cut regulations seen as unnecessary or hampering business activity.

Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans was given a mandate to cut red tape and deliver “better regulation”.

He has analysed pending legislation left over from the Barroso Commission and decided which should be dropped.

The Commission's "better regulation" drive has caused unease with environmental organisations, trade unions and consumer groups, which have called on the Commission not to drop proposed gender and environmental laws.They called on the Commission to keep those laws on the Commission's 2015 work programme, presented in December.

Responding to those calls, Timmermans announced that the Commission would ditch the Circular Economy package to replace it with “more ambitious” legislation in 2015, and change the NEC Directive, to ease its passing into EU law.

  • October: Pleanry vote on revised NEC Directive

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