Mixed feelings as MEPs agree national air pollution caps

MEPs agree revised national limits for six key pollutants, including ammonia and methane, but some groups say the proposals are not ambitious enough

MEPs today (October 28) reached agreement on capping national emissions of six key air pollutants — including methane — up to 2030 after a fraught debate on the proposals this morning.

The MEP vote took place during this week's plenary session at the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France

The MEP vote took place during this week’s plenary session at the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France

In a crucial vote, rapporteur for the legislation and UK Conservative MEP Julie Girling had her proposals agreed by a show of hands, which she described as a “good result” with the Parliament showing “common sense” and “a real bottom-up demand for action”.

Ms Girling’s report also calls on the Commission to ensure that the proposed EU Real Drive Emissions (RDE) test procedure for passenger cars is agreed as soon as possible — an issue which was the subject of a separate meeting at EU level today (see story).

However, it means that MEPs rejected a more ambitious package put forward by the Parliament’s Environment Committee in July (see story) which environmental groups say would have prevented 42,800 further premature deaths each year than the package agreed today.

Nevertheless, it is estimated that the proposals backed by MEPs could save €40 billion in air pollution costs by 2030.

But the agreement has prompted mixed responses, with environmental groups and politicians lamenting the proposals as not ambitious enough, while agricultural groups were left frustrated after failing to stop MEPs including the cap on methane, which they believe will unfairly penalise their industry.

National government ministers in the European Council will now enter into negotiations with the Parliament over the proposals with a view to reaching a first-reading agreement before a final MEP vote expected next year.

Agreed caps

The proposals agreed in the Parliament today set out national caps for sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC), methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), and fine particulates (PM2.5).

Currently, limits in the existing National Emissions Ceiling Directive (NECD) are only set for four pollutants — SO2, NOx, ammonia and VOCs — up to 2020.

However, the new limits on the six pollutants would need to be achieved in Member States by 2025 and 2030, as proposed by the Commission, thereby updating the current 2020 targets.

It was also felt that mercury emissions — which largely come from coal fired plants — should be capped in future, but MEPs called for an impact assessment to be carried out on this pollutant before committing to its inclusion in the updated Directive.


Elsewhere, MEPs voted to remove the Commission’s proposals for flexibility to allow Member States to offset reductions in emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxides ad particulate matter from international shipping.

Instead, they called on the Commission to consider measures to reduce shipping emissions — particularly in Member States’ territorial waters and exclusive economic zones — and, if appropriate, to submit a legislative proposal to this end.


According to EEB, agriculture is the main source of ammonia and methane emissions in Europe

According to EEB, agriculture is the main source of ammonia and methane emissions in Europe

There had been fears among environmental campaigners ahead of today’s vote that strong lobbying from agricultural and farming groups would prevent methane being added to the list of capped pollutants in the proposals.

Agriculture is one of the main sources of methane and ammonia emissions across the EU, through activities such as livestock digestion, synthetic fertilisers, and manure spreading and storage, but farmers say that further regulating these emissions would be too much of a burden on the sector, which they argue has in the past already cut emissions of the pollutants considerably.

These concerns of the farming sector had been backed by Julie Girling MEP and Defra air quality minister Rory Stewart — both of whom represent rural, agricultural constituencies.

Nevertheless, despite the inclusion of methane in the limits, Ms Girling welcomed today’s agreement as “ambitious” but “could realistically be delivered by 2020, 2025 and 2030 target dates”.

She said efforts to pass “unrealistic” and “unobtainable” limits by Labour, Socialist and Green MEPs were rightly defeated in the vote, as their proposals would not reach agreement with the European Council.

Speaking after the vote, she said: “Europe needs to take action to clean up its air. We need to set ambitious targets on key pollutants. But they have to be deliverable.”

Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder also welcomed the “ambitious pollution limits” which she said “will ensure that every sector, from industry to agriculture, plays it part in cleaning up Europe’s air”.


Labour MEP for London, Seb Dance, also hailed the “landmark” vote for backing “strict and binding emissions targets for 2025 and 2030; specific measures to protect vulnerable people; a greater say for local councils on how air pollution should be tackled; and enhanced public consultation and access to justice if governments fail to deliver”.

However, he added: “It’s a shame that Tory and UKIP MEPs voted against my amendments for stricter targets which would have prevented thousands more lives in the UK each year.

“The onus is now on the UK government, who have lobbied to water down these measures at every step, and Member States to support these measures. David Cameron must protect the people of the UK and take effective action to tackle this invisible killer once and for all.”

In addition, NGO the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) welcomed the inclusion of methane and the retention of ammonia in the targets, but described the overall package agreed today as “timid”, lamenting MEPs failure to back the package set out by the Parliament’s Environment Committee over the summer.


Meanwhile, environmental law NGO ClientEarth described the outcome as a “missed opportunity” adding that the failure to bring in more stringent emissions limits due to pressure from the farming lobby “could costs thousands of lives in the UK every year”.

Alan Andrews, Clean Air Lawyer for ClientEarth, said: “The British government’s fingerprints are all over this. They have been acting as a mouthpiece for farming instead of working to protect our health from air pollution.

“It seems they have learned nothing from the Volkswagen scandal. Once again our politicians have shown that they serve special interests rather than the people who vote for them. Regulations written by industry for industry are in nobody’s long term interests.”


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