Environment MEPs want stricter air pollutant caps

Member states should meet stricter 2025 and 2030 air pollution reduction targets and mercury should also be included in the National Emission Ceilings directive, says the Parliament’s Environment Committee.

In a vote on 15 July, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee agreed on tougher new national emission reduction commitments on air pollutants than those proposed by the European Commission.The vote was about the revision of the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) directive, which will set limits on emissions of pollutants in each of the 28 EU member countries for the years 2020, 2025 and 2030 (see AN 2/15).

“The Environment Committee has shown leadership in the fight against air pollution,” said Louise Duprez, senior policy officer for air quality at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). “It wants to tackle air pollution and help bring about healthier and longer lives, lower health bills and greater economic productivity. This makes perfect sense given that the benefits of cleaner air far outweigh any costs of taking action.”

The NEC directive is the EU’s key legal instrument to improve air quality, as it sets national emission caps for a number of air pollutants, thus tackling cross-border pollution. It is also essential for implementing the EU’s international commitments under the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution. Air pollution in the EU causes over 400,000 premature deaths and between €330 billion and €940 billion in health-related damage every year.

In the text adopted by the Environment Committee, the emission reduction targets are more stringent than in the Commission’s original proposal. The targets for 2025, which the Commission proposed to be only indicative, have become binding, and mercury has been added to the list of pollutants covered by the directive. (The pollutants covered by the current NEC directive are sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, non-methane volatile organic compounds and ammonia, and the Commission have also proposed to include particulate matter (PM2.5), and methane.)

Despite heavy lobbying from the agricultural sector and efforts by centre-right and conservative MEPs to relax targets for ammonia and remove those for methane, the environment committee voted in favour of stricter targets for ammonia and for keeping methane targets in the directive.

British MEP Seb Dance, spokesperson for the Socialist & Democrat group (S&D) described the vote as “an important first step to ensure appropriate action is taken by all sectors in the economy to improve air quality.”

A coalition of socialist, liberal, left and green MEPs voted in favour of the stricter targets, while most centre-right and conservative MEPs voted against. The committee adopted the report by 38 votes to 28, with two abstentions.

Somewhat surprisingly, the report’s author, British Conservative MEP Julie Girling, of the ECR group, voted against it, essentially arguing that it was too ambitious.

There was however wide agreement in the committee on a number of changes to the proposed directive, such as improved reporting, clearly stated long-term objectives, better access to justice, and the addition of a review clause. It was also agreed to remove a Commission proposal for flexibility that would have allowed members states to offset reductions in emissions from international shipping, since such offsets would be extremely difficult to apply and would exclude landlocked countries.

Moreover, MEPs called on the Commission and member states to strengthen rules on motor vehicle emissions-testing, including for diesel vehicles, to ensure that the tests reflect real-world driving emissions and that vehicles remain compliant as they get older.

The European Parliament will adopt its formal position at a plenary session in late October, after which negotiations will begin with national governments in the Council.

Christer Ågren

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