Friday

20th Sep 2019

Interview

EU dilemma: more milk or clean air

Julie Girling, who is steering an air pollution bill through the European Parliament, was amazed when she first saw how many underground car parks Brussels has.

“You walk down the street in Brussels and you can be knocked over by people coming out of underground car parks. I'm not joking, you have to be very careful”, the centre-right British MEP recently told this website in an interview.

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  • Girling: 'I don't think we should be setting targets that people can't reach' (Photo: European Parliament)

A plethora of car parks works as an incentive for people to drive to work, contributing to a congested and polluted city.

“So why would you encourage people by having for example here in the European Parliament a massive car park?”, she asked.

Girling noted that it is “up to the people who live in Brussels” to decide how to reduce air pollution.

However, she is partly in control of new legislation which will set ceilings for pollutants, for each of the EU's member states, including Belgium.

As rapporteur, she is in charge of steering the revision of the National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) directive through the European Parliament. Her report will be put to a vote in the environment committee next Wednesday (15 July).

The European Commission has proposed to replace the NEC directive with updated national ceilings for the following pollutants: sulphur dioxide; nitrogen oxides; ammonia and non-methane volatile organic compound; and new ceilings for particulate matter and methane.

Milk production or life extension?

However, national governments, like the United Kingdom, have been trying to water down the targets the commission has thought up.

“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”, a leaked document on the British position says.

Milk cows produce manure, which together with synthetic fertilizer is the main origin of ammonia emissions.

But with air pollution causing an estimated 29,000 premature deaths in the UK, why would the UK government choose to increase milk production over possibly prolonging the life of some of those 29,000 citizens?

“I don't want to comment on their view on that, because I don't represent the UK government”, said Girling, who is a member of the Conservative Party, the current governing party in the UK.

“I represent my constituents here in the European Parliament, and I don't represent the Conservative Party really. But I, obviously I want to understand their position. It's no different to virtually all of the other member states I've spoken to”, she noted.

“Every member state is struggling with this dilemma between their agricultural industry ambitions and their obligations on air quality. The UK is not unique in that. They're going to have to find a way of reconciling that”.

So do governments see reducing the number of premature deaths as an 'obligation' instead of an opportunity?

“It is an obligation. They're obliged to do so by the directive. If they wanted to, and they were going to do it, we wouldn't have to have directives, would we?”, Girling said.

“What you're saying is: ‘Why would any government have to be persuaded to take action that would save lives?’ True. But, you could take that argument way beyond air quality, couldn't you? The cost of drugs, and all sorts of things. There is always a cost-risk-benefit axis. Air quality is no different from anything else”.

High targets or 'feasible' targets?

Some MEPs have tabled an amendment calling for even higher targets than the commission has proposed.

“I don't think we should be setting targets that people can't reach”, Girling said.

“You shouldn't have targets simply based on what you want to happen, you should have targets based on what you want to happen combined with what you think is actually feasible, and the timeframe around that.”

Already, member states are having great difficulty to achieve existing goals.

Last month, the commission took Belgium and Bulgaria to court for its failure to comply with EU targets on air quality, the last step of infringement procedures.

In total, the commission has such procedures on air quality against 16 of the EU's 28 member states.

Girling said she thinks governments haven't taken air quality targets “seriously enough, because they've been concentrating their efforts on greenhouse gas reduction”, like carbon dioxide.

“Some of the efforts to reduce greenhouse gases have actually inadvertedly increased air pollution. In the UK for example, the move to diesel cars has not been positive from an air quality point of view, although it has been very positive from a climate change point of view”.

Methane

Some greenhouse gases, are also 'regular' air pollutants, like methane.

But several MEPs and national governments, are trying to have methane removed from the revised NEC directive. According to the EP's agricultural committee, tough regulation on methane emissions, part of which is produced by livestock, is “problematic for the agricultural sector”.

Whether methane and ammonia will end up in the parliament's version of the planned legislation, is something where Girling sees no possibility to come to a compromise.

“I think there will just be a vote. Either methane is in, or it is not in … I think the parliament should have a straight vote and decide the majority position on that”.

After the committee has decided its position on Wednesday, it will likely wait for national governments to come up with a common position, so that Girling can negotiate with their representatives.

That is, unless the commission decides to withdraw the proposal, something it hinted it would do shortly after Jean-Claude Juncker’s, its president’s, team took up office in November 2014.

“I am still rather mystified at [the commission's better regulation czar] Timmermans' view. He's told me they have never had any intention of withdrawing it. Which doesn't stack up with what was being said back last autumn”, Girling noted.

She added that after discussions with the commission, she has “no particular reason to think that they will” withdraw it. “But I wouldn't want to put any money on that”.

Scrapping of environmental plans 'alarming'

A group of 10 environmental NGOs are “deeply concerned” by draft European Commission plans to scrap proposals aimed at improving air quality and reducing waste.

Lobbyists play tug-of-war with MEPs on farm emissions

On Wednesday, the European Parliament will vote on new air quality rules. The key question is whether two agriculture-related pollutants, methane and ammonia, will be included in the legislation.

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