Revising EU air pollution policy

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Significant additional emission reductions and accompanying environmental improvements can be achieved in the EU over the next 10-15 years. Health benefits alone far outweigh the extra costs for emission control.

According to a recent report1 by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), expected emission changes from implementing current legislation will lead to significant improvements in EU air quality. But despite these improvements, remaining levels of air pollutants will still cause significant damage to human health and ecosystems.

The production and analysis by IIASA of emission scenarios and their environmental impacts is done on behalf of the European Commission as part of the ongoing process to review and revise EU air pollution policy (see AN 3/2012).
Projections of future EU air pollutant emissions up to 2030 show that under business-as-usual (i.e. no additional measures on top of current legislation) sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions would decline by about 70 per cent, nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 65 per cent, and particulate matter (PM2.5) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by about 40 per cent, compared to 2005. No significant changes are foreseen for emissions of ammonia (NH3).

IIASA has also investigated the potential to take additional measures to reduce emissions beyond the current legislation, and found that full application of readily available technical measures – known as the Maximum Technically Feasible Reductions (MTFR) – would offer a significant potential for further improvements, which would bring the EU closer to achieving the objectives of its Environment Action Programme (see Table).

Table : Annual impact on health and ecosystems in EU27 in the year 2000, 2010 and in 2030 under the baseline and MTFR scenarios.

For instance, under current legislation the loss of average statistical life expectancy from exposure to PM2.5 is expected to come down from 9.6 months in 2000 to 5.5 months in 2020 and 5.0 months in 2030. Full application of additional and readily available emission reduction measures could reduce these health impacts by another 30 per cent.

Elevated levels of ground‐level ozone caused about 30,000 cases of premature deaths in the EU in 2000. By 2020, this number is expected to decline to 21,000 cases per year and by 2030 to some 19,000 cases. Full implementation of MTFR in the EU could avoid another 3,000 premature deaths per year. Changes in the impact of ozone to different types of vegetation, including crops and forests, have not yet been analysed.

Eutrophication constitutes a serious threat to the biodiversity of European ecosystems, and the continuing failure to reduce agricultural ammonia emissions enhances the urgency of this problem. In the year 2000, excess nitrogen deposition threatened biodiversity in 1.2 million km2 of sensitive ecosystems, and by 2010 slow progress reduced this area to 1.05 million km2. By 2030, the anticipated NOx reductions could shrink the affected area to 912,000 km2, which is still more than half of the total area of sensitive ecosystems. Further measures, mainly for ammonia emissions, could protect another 200,000 km2.

Of particular importance are areas that receive specific protection under the Birds and Habitat Directives or under national law. While not all countries have supplied critical loads data for such protected areas, IIASA concludes that progress in these zones is slow, and by 2030, biodiversity in nearly two-thirds of the protected areas may still be threatened by excess nitrogen deposition, in addition to pressures from fragmentation and climate change.

In contrast, the situation looks brighter for acidification. The sharp fall in SO2 emissions in particular is expected to shrink the unprotected forest area in the EU between 2000 and 2030 by three-quarters, from 205,000 km2 to less than 50,000 km2. In addition, there is significant scope for further improvements, both from more stringent technical emission controls and through tougher climate policy.

A new methodology has been developed that enables the assessment of compliance with PM10 and NO2 air quality limit values under future emission scenarios. This has been implemented for all AirBase stations in the EU for which sufficient monitoring data are available, i.e. 1,483 stations for PM10 and 1,174 stations for NO2. (AirBase is the public air quality database system of the European Environment Agency, which contains monitoring data and information submitted by the participating countries throughout Europe.)

For the PM10 limit values – which should already have been met by 2005 – emission cuts under current legislation are expected to largely eliminate current non‐compliance in most of the member states by 2020. However, due primarily to the persistence of solid fuel use in small stoves for home heating, exceedances of the PM10 limit values are expected to prevail in urban areas in Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Full application of MTFR could eliminate almost all likely remaining exceedances by 2020, but problems would still persist in urban areas in these four countries. Here, dedicated action to substitute solid fuels in the household sector with cleaner forms of energy will be needed.

For NO2 limit values – which should have been met by 2010 – the foreseen drop in NOx emissions from the transport sector will reduce the share of stations that are in clear non-compliance with the annual NO2 limit value from about 25 per cent in 2000 to four per cent in 2020 and further to one per cent in 2030. Implementation of the MTFR could eliminate all non‐compliance with the exception of three stations. It should be noted that MTFR does not include or consider local measures such as traffic restrictions or low-emission zones.

In a second report2, IIASA presents preliminary results of applying the optimisation mode of its GAINS computer model to identify the least-cost set of emission reduction measures for the EU as a whole that will achieve given environmental targets at differing levels of ambition. Together with an analysis of the associated costs and monetised benefits, this type of scenario analysis will be used to establish the level of ambition for the EU air quality policy for future target years (see Box).

Billions in benefits

A preliminary cost-benefit analysis1 (CBA) was presented at the SEG meeting in December. Here the estimated cost for additional emission abatement measures beyond the baseline was compared to estimated health benefits.

Moving from the baseline to the low ambition level (25% gap closure) would reduce annual health damage costs in 2030 by €15-51 billion in the EU. Going to the mid (50%) and high (75%) ambition levels would result in annual benefits of €29-102 billion and €44-154 billion, and implementing MTFR would provide health benefits valued at €59-204 billion.

The costs for the additional emission abatement measures range from €0.4 billion per year in 2030 for the lowest ambition case, €2.3 billion/yr for the mid case and up to €10 billion/yr. If for the high ambition case. The MTFR is estimated to cost €53 billion/yr If expressed as a percentage of GDP in 2030, for the mid case this is equivalent to 0.014 per cent, and for the high case 0.06 per cent as an average for the whole EU.

To put these figures in perspective, 0.01 per cent of GDP corresponds to 10 minutes of work per year for each person, assuming 250 eight-hour workdays per year, according to the analysis for last year’s revision of the Gothenburg Protocol.

For all scenarios, including the MTFR, the monetised health benefits exceed the costs. Some examples: for the mid ambition scenario the benefits exceed the costs by between 13 times (lowest valuation) and 44 times (highest valuation), and for the high ambition scenario the benefits-to-cost ratio is between 5 and 16.

It should be noted that these monetised benefits do not include impacts to ecosystems, agricultural crops or materials. Nor do they include for example chronic effects of ozone on health.

1 Cost-benefit analysis of scenarios for cost-effective emission controls after 2020 (November 2012). Report to the European Commission by Mike Holland, EMRC.

Results presented in these two reports are still preliminary because the calculations were performed using an energy scenario from 2010, while the final analysis – to be presented in April – will instead use the most recent EU-wide energy scenario, known as PRIMES‐2012.

The optimised scenarios are constructed for what is known as a gap closure approach, aiming at step-wise health and environmental improvements. In effect this means closing the gap between the impacts of the baseline and the MTFR scenarios. For this report, IIASA has calculated three gap-closure scenarios, investigating varying levels of ambition, 25, 50 and 75 per cent gap closure for four different health and environmental targets.

The review and revision of EU air pollution policy started in March 2011 and is expected to result in a clean air strategy package to be presented by the Commission in autumn 2013. One of the main components of the package will be a revised Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution (TSAP), updating the previous one from 2005, establishing new targets for reducing damage to health and the environment as well as associated ambition levels for future cuts in air pollutant emissions.

The TSAP will be accompanied by a proposal to revise the 2001 National Emission Ceilings (NEC) directive, setting binding emission reduction targets for each member state for five air pollutants. The target year for achieving the reductions is yet to be decided, but it is likely to be 2020, 2025 or 2030, or possibly there could be more than one target year.

On 5 December, the Commission’s Stakeholder Expert Group (SEG) held its fourth meeting, where it was updated on progress and discussed the information developed so far. A fifth SEG meeting is scheduled to take place in early April.

Christer Ågren

1 TSAP-2012 Baseline: Health and environmental impacts. TSAP Report #6 (November 2012).
2 Scenarios of cost-effective emission controls after 2020. TSAP Report #7 (November 2012).
The IIASA reports prepared for the EU air pollution policy review can be downloaded from:
The presentations held at the 5 December SEG meeting are available at a dedicated CIRCA library website that can be reached from:

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