Lower the ceilings

Even when the Gothenburg Protocol to the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution was signed in 1999 it was clear that the agreed emission reductions were totally inadequate to achieve the long-term objective of not exceeding critical loads. A process of review and revision in which emission ceilings are progressively lowered was therefore foreseen – a process that is expected to end this year with the signing of a new updated agreement (see article on front page).

The protocol 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 requirements for reducing emissions of four air pollutants (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, and volatile organic compounds). The new protocol will be expanded to include one more pollutant, namely fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

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. But it was a great disappointment that the emission reductions that the signatories undertook to make by 2010 were clearly insufficient.

The reason for this anomaly was that the ceilings of the protocol were in effect set by the signatories themselves, there having been no proper negotiation. In a great majority of cases the figures were an expression of what the countries believed their emissions would be in 2010 as a result of existing legislation. In other words, that was the end of their commitments.

Unfortunately history may repeat itself. In the ongoing negotiations for a new protocol, many countries still claim they are unable to commit to emission reductions by 2020 that go beyond what is generally expected to be achieved by just implementing current legislation.

It is paradoxical and shameful that EU member states that have accepted that the EU must reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 20 or even 30 per cent by 2020, do not accept that such policy targets are fully reflected in the scenario analysis!

This is essential because the forecast fossil fuel use largely determines the levels of emissions of the air pollutants SO2, NOx and PM. So if fossil fuel use is overestimated, the estimated cost of cutting air pollutants will be exaggerated, and inflated cost estimates are likely to lower political acceptance of the more ambitious initiatives.

An overestimation of future fossil fuel use will moreover result in an underestimation of the potential to reduce emissions of air pollutants, thus further weakening the case for ambitious new emission ceilings.

Consequently, if the EU takes the necessary additional action to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the costs of reducing emissions of the traditional air pollutants will be significantly lowered – cost savings that could be used to further improve the protection of human health and the environment from the damaging impacts of air pollution. This would mean aiming for a much higher level of environmental ambition, compared to the current focus of negotiations.

The gravity of the current air pollution situation calls for a new Gothenburg Protocol that establishes a very high level of ambition.

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.

Christer Ågren

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