Editorial: Zero-pollution vision for air quality

By: Christer Ågren

A recent Eurobarometer survey asked over 27,000 people from across the EU several questions about air quality. When asked at what level they thought the issue of air pollution should be addressed, nearly three-quarters (72%) of EU citizens said at “international level”.

To deal with air pollution at the wider international level, countries from Europe and North America jointly set up the Air Convention, which last year celebrated its 40th anniversary.

The Convention’s Gothenburg Protocol sets binding national caps for five air pollutants (SO₂, NOx, NH₃, VOCs and PM), to be achieved by 2020. Using an effects-based scientific foundation, it is cleverly constructed to achieve commonly agreed interim environmental targets at least cost for Europe as a whole.

However, the emission reductions for 2020 were clearly inadequate to achieve the long-term objectives, and a process of review and revision in which emission caps were to be progressively lowered was therefore foreseen.

In December 2019 the convention’s Executive Body decided to start the review process, and following this decision environmental groups – under the lead of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) – presented their initial recommendations for the review of the Protocol, namely that a revised Gothenburg Protocol shall:

  • Continue to be based on the multi-pollutant and multi-effect approach;
  • Introduce a long-term vision of zero-pollution;
  • Set a clear objective that emissions of air pollution – by 2030 at the latest – come down to levels that do not exceed the World Health Organization’s guidelines for health protection and also do not exceed the critical loads and levels for environmental protection;
  • Elaborate new national Emission Reduction Commitments (ERCs) for 2030 and future years with the help of integrated assessment modelling that uses emission scenarios based on up-to-date projections of energy use and activity levels that are compliant with the Paris Agreement, i.e. where emissions of greenhouse gases are reduced to levels that are needed to secure that global warming stays below 1.5°C;
  • Establish binding national ERCs for 2030, as well as indicative national ERCs for 2035 and 2040, that are needed to move towards the zero-pollution vision;
  • Expand the number of air pollutants covered by binding ERCs from the current five to eight, by adding methane, black carbon and mercury;
  • Include mandatory technical annexes that set binding minimum requirements (e.g. emission limit values and emission abatement measures) for the main source-sectors;
  • Focus on achieving further significant reductions in agricultural emissions of ammonia and methane;
  • Include a mechanism for review and revision, so that the indicative national ERCs for 2035 and 2040 are reviewed/ revised and made binding by 2030 and 2035 respectively at the latest;
  • Remove the current adjustment procedure and the three-year averaging option.

Clearly there are close and important links between air pollution policies and climate policies. Reducing fossil fuel combustion through improvements in energy efficiency and increased use of less- or non-polluting renewable energy sources will result in significantly lower emissions of SO₂, NOx and PM, as well as cutting emissions of the main greenhouse gas, CO₂.

Not only will the implementation of tough climate policies help to achieve air quality targets. The significant co-benefits from air pollution reductions also help to motivate a much higher level of ambition for climate policy, as well as a higher share of domestic GHG reductions.

Christer Ågren

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