Overhaul of EU air quality policy announced

Photo: Anton Vavilov / Creative Commons

Prompt action is required to further reduce particulate matter, ground-level ozone, and nitrogen dioxide – an EU clean air strategy should be adopted in 2013.

As a follow-up to the European Commission top-level debate on EU air quality policy on 18 January, in mid-March the Commission released a paper1 that briefly presents its planned activities over the next few years.

Initially it is concluded that "current policy efforts, at EU and national level, have not fully delivered the expected results" and that the current levels of exposure to particulate matter (PM) and ground-level ozone cause significant loss of life-expectancy, acute and chronic respiratory and cardiovascular effects, impaired lung development in children and reduced birth weight.

Air pollution is also causing serious threats to ecosystem biodiversity by excess nitrogen nutrient deposition (eutrophication). There are widespread problems with vegetation damage from high levels of ground-level ozone, and ecosystem damage from acidification still remains.

The Commission therefore concludes that "prompt action is required to further reduce air emissions linked to the most problematic pollutants such as particulate matter, ground-level ozone, and nitrogen dioxide" and it intends to "resume without delay" work to update the 2005 Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution, to review the 2008 air quality directive, and to revise the 2001 national emissions ceilings (NEC) directive. An up-to-date clean air strategy package is to be adopted in 2013, at the latest.

The work towards the clean air strategy is to be supported by an open and broad stakeholder consultation process, to be launched this summer, and will include a public online consultation; the establishment of a stakeholder group, dedicated workshops and events, and a dialogue with international organisations, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP).

In order to achieve short-term emission reductions – as a complement to the longer term reductions expected from the clean air strategy after 2013 – the Commission outlines a series of initiatives, including:

  • Revision of the 1999 sulphur-in-fuels directive, in order to incorporate the stricter shipping sulphur emission standards of the revised International Maritime Organisation's MARPOL Annex VI from 2008;
  • A number of actions linked to road vehicle emissions aimed at addressing urban air pollution "hot spots", such as promoting the upgrading of vehicles by applying retrofit technologies, and promoting cleaner and more energy-efficient vehicles;
  • Revision of the CLRTAP's 1999 Gothenburg Protocol, with broadened participation by eastern European countries, as well as extending it to include NECs for particulate matter (PM2.5).

The Commission recognises that there are several important links and potentially beneficial synergies between policies on air pollution and climate change. For example, measures to improve energy efficiency, promote renewable energy sources and reduce the burning of fossil fuels will create co-benefits by also reducing air pollutant emissions. And measures to cut PM emissions and ground-level ozone can create short-term climate benefits, since both ground-level ozone and black carbon (which is a PM constituent) are short-lived climate forcers.

The 2005 Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution was developed following the Commission's four-year Clean Air For Europe (CAFE) programme, and it established interim environmental targets to be achieved by 2020. The original intention was that a revised NEC directive setting binding national emission ceilings for 2020 should secure the achievement of these targets. But this intention may now fail, due to the fact that the Commission has – for various reasons – repeatedly over the last five years postponed the publication of a proposal to revise the NEC directive.

Delaying the NEC proposal another two years, up to 2013, as is currently implied in the Commission document, will in practice mean that adoption by the Parliament and the Council of a new NEC directive is likely to take place in 2015. This in turn means that the new, stricter national emission ceilings will rather be set for 2025 (or perhaps even for as long ahead as 2030), than for 2020, as originally intended.

Christer Ågren

1Commission Staff working paper on the implementation of EU Air Quality Policy and preparing for its comprehensive review (14 March 2011). SEC(2011) 342 final.

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