Editorial: New NEC directive should clear the air

Photo: John Mueller/flickr.com/CC BY-NC-ND

The proposed revision of the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive is currently being debated in the Council and in the European Parliament. While there is wide agreement on the urgency of additional action to cut air pollution, there are differing views among member states on how much and how quickly their emissions should come down.

In its annual air quality report from November last year, the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimated that current levels of air pollution are responsible for 447,000 premature deaths in the EU every year, as well as allergies and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases which result in extra medication, hospitalisations and millions of lost working days.

Moreover, air pollution damages nature and biodiversity, with the deposition of acidifying and eutrophying pollutants and the concentrations of ground-level ozone still exceeding the tolerance limits of sensitive ecosystems over millions of hectares of land in Europe. Agricultural crops and forest productivity are also hit by air pollution, as are building materials and cultural monuments.

The health impacts alone carry enormous costs to society – estimated to amount to between €330 and €940 billion/yr. This means that even a purely economic cost-benefit approach motivates a very significant stepping up of action to tackle air pollution, since the health benefits alone outweigh by far the additional costs for emissions control.

Because the health impacts are relatively easy to value, much of the political debate on establishing a “suitable” level of ambition for future emission reduction targets tends to focus on economics. And much too often member states focus primarily on the perceived costs, while at the same time largely ignoring the benefits.

However, clean air and water, healthy people, forests and heathlands, and a rich flora and fauna are necessary for a high quality of life, and must not be overlooked by policy makers, whether or not they are valued in monetary terms.

The gravity of the air pollution situation calls for a new NEC directive that establishes a very high level of ambition. It is certainly not acceptable that even after 2030, air pollution will still cause a quarter of a million premature deaths, and that millions of hectares of valuable ecosystems will still be exposed to excessive pollutant levels, as would be the case under the Commission’s proposed new NEC directive.

Applying new and improved emission control techniques must be part of the solution, and that’s why EU source-sector legislation must be regularly updated and strengthened.

Minimising the use of fossil fuels is key to resolving both climate change and air pollution, as it cuts emissions of carbon dioxide as well as those of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, fine particulate matter and mercury. Better energy efficiency, increased use of less-polluting or non-polluting renewable energy sources, and behavioural change (e.g. reducing car usage and meat consumption) are examples of measures that will benefit both air quality and the climate.

The EU’s new climate and energy policy for 2030 – which was not accounted for in the Commission’s proposed new NEC directive – opens the way for more ambitious clean air targets, as was demonstrated by the Parliament’s impact assessment study (AN 4/14).

But we all know that to avoid dangerous climate change, we need much tougher climate and energy targets, and this will help to achieve even stricter air pollution targets. At the same time, the significant short-term co-benefits for health and nature from the resulting air pollution reductions should help to motivate a much higher level of ambition for climate policy.

Christer Ågren

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