Editorial: Still a long way to go
In early May, after five years of negotiation, countries in Europe and North America agreed to take on new emission reduction commitments for the major air pollutants, by adopting a revised Gothenburg Protocol to the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution.
The original protocol from 1999 is cleverly constructed with nationally differentiated undertakings that are designed to achieve commonly agreed interim environmental targets at least cost for Europe as a whole. It includes national caps for air pollutants (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, and volatile organic compounds), to be achieved by 2010 and not to be exceeded thereafter.
By establishing that international agreements could be made to rest on an effects-based scientific foundation in accordance with the critical-loads approach, the Gothenburg Protocol certainly marked a significant step forward. However, the emission reductions that the signatories undertook to make by 2010 were clearly inadequate to achieve the long-term objective of not exceeding critical loads and levels.
A process of review and revision in which emission ceilings were to be progressively lowered was therefore foreseen, and the first stage of this process ended in May this year with the adoption of a new updated agreement, setting new targets to be achieved by 2020.
It is good that the revised protocol has been extended to include emission reduction commitments for particulate matter (PM2.5). But it is also a great disappointment that the overall level of ambition is still far from sufficient to adequately protect health and the environment.
Air pollution by fine particles is estimated to cause nearly half a million premature deaths every year in the 27 EU member states, corresponding to almost 4.5 million years of life lost. Ground-level ozone is responsible for another 20,000 or so premature deaths each year.
Deposition of airborne nitrogen compounds in the EU exceeds the critical loads for eutrophication (over-fertilisation) of vulnerable ecosystems over a total area of more than one million square kilometres, and the critical loads for acidification are also exceeded over vast areas of vulnerable forest and freshwater ecosystems.
The revised protocol is likely to contribute to some improvements, but unless further action is taken many of these problems will still remain in 2020.
Most EU member states are currently struggling to meet mandatory air quality standards for PM and nitrogen dioxide, and as it looks now, the Commission will most likely have to bring several countries to the Court of Justice for failing to comply with the legislation.
A proposal for a revised EU national emissions ceiling (NEC) directive is foreseen for next year, thus providing a new opportunity to spur further necessary emission abatement action across the EU, thereby also facilitating compliance with the air quality standards.
There are also close and important links between air pollution policies and climate policies, and these links can mainly be seen in the energy and transport sectors. Reducing fossil fuel use by improvements in energy efficiency and increased use of less- or non-polluting renewable sources of energy will result in significantly lower emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and PM, as well as cutting emissions of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.
Clearly the ambition levels in Europe for both climate policy and air pollution policy must be significantly raised.
It is not acceptable that even after 2020, air pollution will still cause several hundreds of thousands of premature deaths among European citizens each year, and that millions of hectares of sensitive ecosystems will still be exposed to pollutant depositions in excess of their critical loads.