MEPs weaken air pollution ambition

The agriculture industry must also make an effort as member states strive to meet stricter 2025 and 2030 air pollution reduction targets under the National Emission Ceilings directive, says the European Parliament.

The vote was on the revision of the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) directive, which will set limits on emissions of air pollutants in each of the 28 EU member countries for the years 2020, 2025 and 2030.
The NEC directive is the EU’s key legal instrument for improving air quality, as it sets national emission caps for a number of air pollutants, thus tackling cross-border pollution. It is also essential for implementing the EU’s international commitments under the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution. The pollutants covered by the current NEC directive are sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, non-methane volatile organic compounds and ammonia, and the Commission has also proposed the inclusion of particulate matter (PM2.5), and methane.

Air pollution in the EU causes over 400,000 premature deaths and between €330 billion and €940 billion in health-related damage every year.

Just before the plenary vote, the EU environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella, told the members of the Parliament (MEPs) not to strengthen the emission targets but to support the Commission’s proposal. The positions of co-legislators must not diverge too much, he said, expressing his concern that if the Parliament settled for a higher ambition level, this would jeopardise the chances of a final agreement.

This view was echoed by the rapporteur on the file, British Conservative MEP Julie Girling, who said that going for a higher level of ambition would lead to considerable delays.

Several other MEPs, especially from the socialist, liberal, left and green groups, disagreed, however. Bas Eickhout (Netherlands, Green Party) emphasised that there is an available Parliament impact assessment “showing that, with the same cost effectiveness, we can reduce emissions more, and deliver more on public health”.

A majority of the Parliament decided to follow the cautious line, and the emission reduction targets in the adopted text remain the same as in the Commission’s original proposal. However, the targets for 2025, which the Commission proposed should only be indicative, have been made binding.

Despite heavy lobbying from the agricultural industry and, in particular, efforts by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) to remove targets for ammonia and methane, the Parliament voted in favour of keeping these targets in the directive.

But while the text still includes methane, a last-minute oral amendment from Eric Andrieu (France, S&D) was passed, which excludes enteric emissions of methane from ruminant animals, i.e. emissions caused by the digestive processes of livestock.

The Parliament agreed on a number of changes to improve and strengthen the proposed directive, such as improved reporting, clearly stated long-term objectives, better access to justice, and the addition of a review clause. Agreement was also reached on the removal of a Commission proposal for flexibility that would have allowed members states to offset reductions in emissions from international shipping, since such offsets would be extremely difficult to apply and would exclude landlocked countries.

Moreover, the Parliament wants the Commission to perform an impact assessment on including mercury in the directive, a weakening compared to the environment committee’s call for mercury to be included outright.
Commenting on the outcome of the vote, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) concluded that MEPs shied away from the more ambitious targets agreed by the Environment Committee in July, which by 2025 would have prevented 42,800 more premature deaths each year than the Commission’s proposal.

Louise Duprez, Senior Policy Officer for Air Pollution at the European Environmental Bureau, said: “Despite evidence that the higher targets were cost-effective and feasible, and that they would save more lives, MEPs failed to seize the opportunity. This means fewer lives saved and higher costs to society. With the Volkswagen scandal fresh in their minds, MEPs had a major opportunity to right a wrong and take action to clean up Europe’s air. In the weeks and months ahead, they have a major responsibility to secure an outcome that is going to prevent the further loss of human life.”

The next step in the legislative process is for the national governments to agree a common position in the Environment Council, after which representatives from all three institutions (Council, Parliament and Commission) will begin negotiations for a final compromise. A final deal is likely to be adopted in the first half of 2016.

Christer Ågren
Link to the text adopted by the Parliament:


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