Editorial: EU’s key legal instrument for improving air quality

By setting binding national emission caps for a number of air pollutants, the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) directive is the EU’s key legal instrument for improving air quality. The future level of ambition of these caps has recently been debated in the Parliament, and is currently the subject of negotiation among member states in the Council.

These negotiations are carried out in closed rooms, but it appears as if most member states are dragging their heels, trying to lower even further the modest level of ambition of the Commission’s proposal. One cannot help but wonder about the extent to which these arguments were open to public scrutiny.

Not only do they argue for weaker national emission reduction commitments and try to water down other important parts of the proposed legislation, but several member states are now also pushing to introduce a variety of additional flexibilities in order to make it easier for them to comply.

It should be noted that the Commission’s proposal already includes several new flexibilities. Firstly by switching from absolute emission ceilings to percentage reductions, which among other things increases uncertainty about the extent to which the targeted health objectives will actually be achieved.

Secondly by allowing for adjustment of emission inventories (a flexibility taken from the 2012 Gothenburg Protocol), and thirdly by not setting binding targets for 2025, but instead only aiming to ensure that national emissions should be on a “linear trajectory” towards the 2030 binding targets.

But some member states want even more leeway. A new flexibility would open the door for three-year averaging of emissions, thus allowing countries to breach their annual targets during dry summers or cold winters, provided an average is met over three years. Paradoxically, however, dry summers and cold winters exacerbate air quality problems, so instead of allowing higher emissions, it would be more logical to push for lower emissions during these periods.

Another flexibility would allow for adjustment of emission factors. A third would dilute the already weak 2025 targets even further by allowing for non-linear progression to the 2030 target. And a fourth is linked to the concept of “force majeure” and would deem compliance if breaches can be said to be due to “exceptional and unforeseeable events”.

As each flexibility must be clearly defined and limited, this will increase the complexity of the legal text, making the directive much more difficult to enforce.

The Council negotiations must be weighed against the importance and urgency of cutting air pollutant emissions. The current levels of air pollution are responsible for nearly half a million premature deaths in Europe every year, as well as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases that result in extra medication, hospitalisations and millions of lost working days.

A 52-per-cent cut in health damage between 2005 and 2030, as proposed by the Commission, would still leave us with more than a quarter of a million premature deaths in 2030, which of course is totally unacceptable. Despite this, many member states now push for a weakening of this target. They also want more flexibility, which will result in even higher emissions of air pollution, compared to those listed in the directive.

However, the gravity of the air pollution situation calls for a new NEC directive that establishes a very high level of ambition with binding targets for 2020, 2025 and 2030 that are enforceable. It is high time for citizens to voice their demand for something we should all take for granted, namely the right to breathe clean air.

Christer Ågren

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