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Important points 1994-1999

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Ep pioneers cleaner fuels and better engines in crackdown on air pollution

 

Throughout its latest five-year term (1994-1999) the European Parliament has played a vanguard role in combating air pollution - thus boosting the health of Europe's citizens and honouring the Union's international commitments (eg the 1997 Kyoto pact on climate change). The Union's vehicle emission standards are now among the highest in the world.

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While Parliament has also been in the van of measures to encourage economic development and technological progress, it has opposed their achievement at the cost of damaging the health of the ordinary citizen or of further degrading Europe's environment. It has layed great store, in particular, by the "polluter pays" principle: the cost of any damage arising from pollution must be borne by those causing it.

Air pollution is a major cause of health problems in Europe. Emissions of pollutants such as carbon and nitrogen oxides, ozone, hydrocarbons and particulate matter are associated with cancer, respiratory difficulties, eye problems, heart disease and headaches. They also damage materials (eg corroding masonry) and inhibit or impair plant growth (eg dying forests).

Rising to the challenge, the European Parliament has used its legislative and consultative prerogatives to push through - often in the teeth of fierce opposition from Council and industry and sometimes from the Commission - a panoply of measures to combat air pollution. Thus, it has given its backing to a framework directive on air quality and has supported particular measures such as a Community strategy to combat acid rain, action to reduce the sulphur content of power station and shipping fuels, and new limits for lead in air.

Cutting emissions will reduce burden on Europe's economy

However, the jewel in the crown of Parliament's anti-pollution effort is the legislation it has promoted on the basis of the Auto/Oil Programme, a collaborative effort linking the Commission with the motor and oil industries. The programme originated in response to a demand by Parliament (together with the Council) for a strategy to reduce road vehicle emissions with the aim of improving air quality. The external costs of air pollution from motor vehicles, including medical costs, are estimated at a staggering 3% of the European Union's GNP.

The result of the programme so far has been the adoption under the codecision procedure of two major pieces of legislation: a directive designed to improve the quality of petrol and diesel fuels in Europe and a directive aimed at reducing exhaust emissions from passenger cars and light commercial vehicles. Throughout the legislative process Parliament fought long and hard to secure mandatory specifications for fuel quality standards and pollution emission limits for both 2000 and (at a stricter level) 2005: Council had wanted only indicative arrangements for 2005, but Parliament argued, successfully, that industry needed the certainty of fixed standards now so that it could invest in better refineries and plan ahead in confidence for the next generation of motor vehicles.

Moreover, many of the specifications finally agreed, while they may not go as far as Parliament would have wished, are still an improvement on the figures mooted earlier.

In the case of emission limits, under the final agreement, by the year 2000 petrol vehicles weighing over 1760 kg must restrict their emissions to 5.22g of carbon monoxide per km. For diesel vehicles, the figure is 0.95g. By 2005 the ceiling is brought down to 2.27g for petrol vehicles and 0.74g for diesel. Other emission limits apply to hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides and, in the case of diesel, particulates. Limits are also set for vehicles with lower weights.

Turning to the new cleaner fuel specifications, by the year 2000 the sulphur content of petrol must not exceed 150 mg/kg while the maximum for diesel is set at 350 mg/kg. For 2005 this upper limit is reduced to 50mg/kg for both fuels. In the case of benzene, a highly carcinogenic substance in petrol, Council fell in with Parliament's wish to halve the upper limit originally proposed by the Commission for the year 2000. It also accepted Parliament's year 2000 figure for the maximum oxygen content of petrol. Other limits apply, where appropriate, to aromatic hydrocarbons, oxygenates, etc.

But the story does not end there. Building on its success, Parliament is now turning its attention to curbing pollution from lorries by supporting compulsory emission limits for new heavy-duty diesel engines for the years 2000 and (with more stringent specifications) 2005. Emissions from motor- cycles are next on the hit-list. And, outside the Auto/Oil Programme, Parliament has been hard at work on a proposed air-quality directive which will set emission limits for industrial solvents. The least that can be said is that the outlook for air quality in Europe is now decidedly brighter than when the current Parliament was elected in 1994.

Further information: Patrick Reynolds tel. Brussels 284 4706 or email preynolds@europarl.eu.int

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