Health and Business come into conflict as the EU tackles air pollution

By Yasmine Hassan and Chloe Lam

BRUSSELS – A controversial EU policy that would allegedly save 58.000 premature deaths a year is pushing its way in the legislative process. The “Clean Air Policy Package” sets new targets to reduce harmful emissions from industry, traffic, energy plants and agriculture. Opinions have split on the level of ambition in the package’s ceilings; some consider it too weak, while others deem it overly ambitious.

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Figure 2 What is the Clean Air Policy Package?

Despite the success of the European Union and international policies in reducing some of the air pollution problems in recent decades, Europe is lagging behind in its long-term objective of air quality goals. This leads to about 400.000 premature deaths a year and an average loss of life expectancy of several months per citizen, according to a 2014 study by the European Parliament.

With the purpose to accelerate the improvement of air quality, the European commission proposed “The Air Quality Policy Package” back in December 2013.

The initial package consists of:

  1. A Clean Air Program for Europe, which describes the problem, sets out new interim objectives up to 2030, and defines the necessary emission reduction requirements for the key pollutants
  2. A revised National Emission Ceilings Directive (NECD), containing updated national ceilings (caps) for six key air pollutants (PM, SO2, NOx, VOCs, NH3, and CH4)
  3. A new Directive for Medium-sized Combustion Plants, such as electricity generators or heating systems
  4. A revision of the UNECE Gothenburg Protocol, establishing international controls on air pollution

In July 2015, the environment committee in the European Parliament modified the commission’s draft. They added mercury to the proposal, set intermediate binding targets for 2025, strengthened the 2030 reduction targets, and reinforced provisions on stakeholder consultation as well as involvement of local and regional authorities. The parliament will vote on the amendments by the end of October.

The Clean Air Policy Package: Too weak or too ambitious?

The scope of the problem is indeed alarming. A report published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed that “Urban air pollution is set to become the top environmental cause of mortality worldwide by 2050”. The economic cost of the health impacts is estimated at EUR 330-940 billion (3-9% of EU GDP). Direct costs to society, including damage to crops and buildings, amount to about €23 billion per year.

Realizing an urgency to tackle air pollution in Europe, critics are unsatisfied with the proposed package’s terms. They are calling for more adequate measures and ambitious goals.

Most environmental and public health NGOs have been critical of the initial draft, for not setting any binding targets until 2030.

“We think that this is far too late,” says Louise Duprez, senior policy Officer for Air and Noise at The European Environmental Bureau (EEB). “The longer we wait, the more we lose on air pollution.”

Figure 3: A device by EEB shows high concentration of harmful particulates in the air

Figure 3: A device by EEB shows high concentration of harmful particulates in the air

The European commission, however, considers the 2030 target to be the most realistic.  “That is what we think is a reasonable objective to reach by having a constant declining of emissions year after year,” the spokesperson for environment Enrico Brivio says, adding that there would be stricter limits to bring down all the member states to the compliance.

The European Public Health Alliance, EPHA, criticizes the flexibility of the package, as it gives the member states an absolute freedom to choose how to meet the set targets. “The member states should not have the possibility to neglect the obligations,” says Zoltan Massay-Kosubek, EPHA’s Policy Coordinator for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Professor Torben Sigsgaard, head of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aarhus University and member of the European Respiratory Society that brings together physicians and scientists from 140 countries, thinks that the national emission ceilings (NEC) introduced in the package are not precise enough and are inviting to fraud. “The emission ceilings are not giving the right picture and this is the major problem,” Sigsgaard explains.

Member of the Greens group in the European Parliament, Margrete Auken, also hopes for a more ambitious proposal. “We are dealing with a dramatic problem and if they do not want to modernize and upgrade this directive, the ongoing air pollution will kill people and nature,” Auken says.

Christel Schaldemose, Social Democrat member of the parliament, believes that the package can solve some of the problems, but not all. “ The goals are big enough and ambitious enough, what lacks is a political pressure on the member states to deliver,” Schaldemose says, referring to a need for binding tools from the European Commission.

On the other hand, some business sectors that would be directly affected by the proposal suspect the feasibility of the targets; and they highlight possible risks on their industries.

Business Europe, which stands up for European companies, raises concerns that the legislative proposals would impose a disproportionate cost on industry, ultimately leading to production cuts in Europe and hindering industrial competitiveness. According to a position paper published by the association, there is a significant risk that the targets proposed would actually be unachievable because they go beyond what is technically and economically feasible.

FuelsEurope, the voice of the European petroleum refining industry, also considers the binding targets in the initial proposal as too ambitious and at significant risk of being unattainable.

Figure 4 Air pollution: comparing EU and WHO standards

Figure 4 Air pollution: comparing EU and WHO standards

European Automobile Manufacturers Association, ACEA, calls for realistic, feasible and cost-effective requirements and for sufficient lead-time to meet them.  It wants to exclude from the scope of the package “units already regulated by a permit or those for which monitoring is impossible”.

The Danish Agriculture and Food Council fears that the suggested emissions targets of methane will have severe effects on the production of milk products and meat in EU. It is also concerned that the targets for ammonia reduction in 2020 and 2030 are unevenly distributed and do not take previous efforts into consideration. “We need more realistic reduction targets based on cost-efficient mitigation options,” says Senior Consultant Ida M.L.D. Storm.

Despite the controversy over the level of ambition in the Clean Air Package, all parties agree that the current air quality standards in the European Union do not fall in line with the World Health organization (WHO)’s recommendations (figure 5).

On the one hand, NGOs, scholars and members of the parliament are blaming the commission for lagging behind and they are pushing for more urgent actions. On the other hand, the commission thinks it is unrealistic to push for tighter directives while 17 member states are already failing to meet the existing standards, and are facing infringement procedures.