20th Mar 2018

France, UK trying to weaken EU air pollution law

  • Smog in London (Photo: stu mayhew)

The problem of air pollution became visible recently in two of Europe's largest capitals, with London and Paris covered by thick clouds of smog in March.

However, while those cities' mayors have proposed measures to tackle the issue, the governments that reside in the two capitals are attempting to water down stricter EU limits.

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The United Kingdom and France have expressed "concerns" over the strictness of pollution ceilings which have been proposed in EU legislation, currently being negotiated by both the EU member states and the European Parliament.

The ceilings for deadly pollutants are part of the revision of the national emission ceilings directive, which puts a cap on the amount of pollution EU members can emit annually.

Some 400,000 Europeans a year die earlier than they would have under normal circumstances, according to the European Commission. In the EU, air pollution is said to kill more than 10 times more people than road traffic accidents.

The directive, proposed by the commission in December 2013, would put limits on six air pollutants, including particulate matter and nitrogen oxides.

However, there is an attempt to water down the limits for the air pollutant ammonia, which in the EU is emitted for 95 percent by agriculture.

In position papers from France and the UK, seen by this website, the ammonia ceilings are singled out. The French called the ammonia restrictions “too ambitious”, and said that “specificities” of member states - i.e. those with a large agricultural sector - should be taken into account.

“As regards the ammonia ceilings, we are disappointed that the potential growth in the dairy sector in the UK and a number of EU Member States … is not reflected in the analysis as this will have significant impact on our ability to meet the ceilings”, the British paper said.

On Wednesday (1 April), the EU's milk quota will be abolished, giving farmers the ability to increase their number of milk cows.

However, more milk cows also means more manure, which, together with synthetic fertiliser, is the main cause of ammonia emissions.

In the European Parliament, which will decide in the coming months how it would like to amend the commission's proposal, there is also a push to exclude agriculture-related air pollutants from the legislation.

“The inclusion of methane reduction commitments in the NEC Directive is problematic for the agricultural sector”, Dutch Liberal MEP Jan Huitema wrote in his draft opinion (9 March) for the EP's agriculture committee, adding that methane is a greenhouse gas and its reduction is already covered by climate legislation.

Huitema also stated that “inclusion of excessive ammonia reduction commitments in the NEC Directive also poses problems for the agricultural sector”.

His text will be put to a vote on 4 May before it is sent to the parliament's environmental committee, which has the lead in the dossier.

That committee's rapporteur, British Conservative MEP Julie Girling, published her draft report on Monday (23 March).

She wrote she does want methane to be a part of the directive, but wants to give an exception to ammonia.

“The commission’s ammonia target for 2030 will be difficult to achieve in some Member States, particularly those with large agricultural sectors, and a degree of flexibility is critically important, as ammonia levels are difficult to mitigate quickly and effectively”, Girling wrote.

She proposed that ammonia and methane reductions could be incentivised by providing member states funding from the EU's common agricultural policy.

Girling also notes in her draft report the political upheaval that surrounds the dossier.

When the new EU Commission under Jean-Claude Juncker presented its work programme for 2015, the air quality package of which this directive was a part, was set to be scrapped, an idea the commission later retracted.

“Given the clear benefits to human health and the environment, the commission has opted to maintain the proposal, albeit with the unspecific caveat that it will be modified as part of the legislative follow-up to the 2030 climate and energy package. First reading can now begin in earnest”, Girling wrote.

In June, environment ministers will discuss the directive in Brussels. A vote in the EP's environment committee is expected in July, with a plenary vote in September.

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