New draft EU air pollution limits weaker than in China

Photo: Ryan Taylor/ BY-NC-ND

The EU is currently in the process of defining new emission limits for coal-fired power stations, but the draft new standards are in many cases weaker than existing national standards not only in Europe but also in China, Japan and the United States.

In early April, the European Commission’s IPPC Bureau released draft conclusions on the best available techniques reference documents (BREFs), providing new draft emission standards for air pollutants from large combustion plants.

The decision-making process under the EU’s Industrial Emissions Directive defines best available techniques (BAT) in BREF documents which are to be used by member states to set binding emission limit values for toxic emissions, such as sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), mercury and particulate matter (PM2.5).

The draft conclusions are to be discussed at a meeting in Seville in June with participants from member states and stakeholders, and EU member states are expected to vote on the proposal by the end of this year, followed by formal adoption in early 2016. The new definitions of best available techniques and related emission limits must be included in updated environmental permits within four years of adoption.

As updated versions of BREF documents should be published no later than eight years after the previous version, and the latest one was published in 2006, this BREF is already two years behind schedule.

According to an analysis by Greenpeace, the new draft BREF document from the IPPC Bureau shows only marginal changes compared to an earlier draft published in June 2013. In fact, the emission limits in the draft conclusions are much weaker than many of the emission rates of the best-performing power plants already in existence and weaker than current emission limits in China, the United States and Japan (see box).

Moreover, information released by Greenpeace in March exposed the takeover of the EU’s so-called Seville-process by the fossil fuels industry by demonstrating that the most important body involved in drafting the new standards, the Technical Working Group (TWG), is dominated by the energy industry.

On top of the 137 official seats for industry representatives on the TWG, Greenpeace found that at least 46 representatives in government delegations are in fact industry employees or lobbyists. The presence of these “government experts” represents a clear conflict of interest as they are on the payroll of the companies or interest groups representing the companies that are being regulated. The result is that industry representatives make up over half of the members of the TWG.

Greenpeace also found that even national delegations that do not include industry representatives have advocated industry positions, often using statements directly copied from industry representatives. The impact of this undue influence can be seen in the weakness of the emission limits under consideration.

Environmental groups are therefore deeply concerned that the best available air pollution control techniques are not being properly taken into account in EU decisions to set emission limits for large combustion plants, and that the protection of health and the environment is undermined.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of SO2 and mercury emissions in Europe and one of the largest industrial sources of emissions of NOx, arsenic, lead and cadmium. According to a recent study, air pollution from the EU’s coal-fired power plants caused more than 22,000 premature deaths in 2010, as well as exacerbating asthma and contributing to dangerous levels of mercury found in the blood of thousands of babies born in Europe.

The economic cost of the health impacts of industrial air pollution is substantial. A recent report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimated the financial impact of airborne emissions from industrial facilities in the EU, Norway and Switzerland to be as high as €189 billion every year. (See AN 1/2015)

According to the EEA’s analysis, the annual damage costs could be cut by €19–55 billion if 1500 large combustion plants were to achieve the BAT-associated emission levels for SO2 and NOx described in the 2006 BREF document.

 “The draft proposal by the IPPC Bureau would allow much more pollution than would result from the use of the best available techniques. Adopting these standards will allow enormous health impacts, including thousands of deaths, which could be prevented with existing technology,” Greenpeace concluded.

Christer Ågren

Source 1: Greenpeace Press Briefing, 7 April 2015.
Source 2: “Smoke & Mirrors – How Europe’s biggest polluters became their own regulators” (March 2015). By Greenpeace.

Emission limits for coal plants

Sulphur dioxide (SO2): The best performing power plants in the EU emit on average 20–60 mg/m3 of SO2 every year. Some power plants in the United States achieve even lower annual average rates of 5–15 mg/m3. Yet the proposal recommends annual average limits of 130 mg/m3 for existing plants and 75 mg/m3 for new plants. There was no improvement on the June 2013 draft proposal. This means that the IPPC Bureau’s proposed emission limit for SO2, which is the pollutant responsible for approximately half of the premature deaths attributed to coal-fired power plants, remains 3–5 times above levels that can be achieved with best available techniques.

Nitrogen oxides (NOx): The best performing plants in the EU emit on average 50–80 mg/m3 every year. In China, the best performing plants achieve an annual average of 30–50 mg/m3. While the June 2013 proposal recommended 180 mg/m3 for existing plants, the final proposal has only slightly lowered recommended emission limits to 150 mg/m3. For new coal plants the limit was also marginally changed from 100 to 85 mg/m3. The IPPC Bureau’s proposal would allow many EU plants to avoid the installation of selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology, which is the most effective technology to control NOx emissions.

Particulate matter (PM): After retrofitting, Chinese plants can limit emissions of particulate matter to 5 mg/m3 per day. The best performing Japanese plants can achieve an even better result of 4 mg/m3 per day. Yet the draft proposal would allow large existing EU plants to emit 16 mg/m3 per day and new plants to emit 10 mg/m3 per day. These limits would allow EU plants to avoid installing the best available technologies for controlling PM, such as fabric filters.

Mercury: In the United States, existing hard coal plants cannot emit more than 1.5 μg/m3 of mercury every year. The June 2013 draft proposal would allow EU hard coal plants to emit 6 μg/m3, which the April 2015 proposal only slightly improved to 4 μg/m3. Moreover, emission limits for lignite, which is an even more polluting energy source than hard coal, were not improved. These limits are so lenient that an estimated 85 per cent of EU plants are already in compliance.

Greenpeace recommends the following emission limits under the EU’s rules, based on what is reasonably achievable with the application of state-of-the-art technology:

  Existing plants New plants
Sulphur dioxide (SO2)        <35 mg/m3 (annual) <20 mg/m3 (annual)
Nitrogen oxides (NOx)          <50 mg/m3 (annual) <40 mg/m3 (annual)
Particulate matter (PM)         <3 mg/m3 (annual) <3 mg/m3 (daily)
Mercury (Hg)       <1 μg/m3 (annual) <0.5 μg/m3 (annual)

Source: Greenpeace Press Briefing, 7 April 2015


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