|From forests ravaged by acid rain to cities choking on ozone, from lifeless Scandinavian lakes to ponds stifled by algae, air pollution plays havoc with the environment and with our health. After two years of tough negotiations, the European Parliament and the Council adopted legislation aimed at reducing emissions from large power stations and establishing draconian maximum emission limits for the four worst pollutants.
The Kyoto Protocol is not the only weapon for fighting air pollution. Indeed, greenhouse gases are not our only enemy. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) emitted by power stations can mix with rain to form sulphuric acid which destroys forests and settles on the surface of lakes, killing off aquatic life. A further threat is posed by nitrogen oxides (NOx) which can react with volatile organic compounds and form terrestrial (tropospheric) ozone. While high-altitude ozone is our friend, providing protection against ultraviolet radiation, ground-level ozone is a dangerous poison which destroys plant life and harms the respiratory system - as well as being a greenhouse gas.
Poisonous gases respect no frontiers
Even a 300 metre-high power station chimney can only protect the immediate surrounding area. Emissions can travel hundreds of miles before sinking to the ground, without any respect for borders. This is an area which really does call for action at European level.
Among the measures proposed by the Commission during this parliamentary term were two distinct but closely linked directives. The first aimed to update the legislation on the emission of three toxic substances from large combustion plants: nitrogen oxides (NOx) generated when oxygen reacts with nitrogen at very high temperatures, sulphur dioxide (SO2) generated by burning fossil fuels, and organic or mineral dust released by cement works for example. These three pollutants are implicated in a whole range of respiratory illnesses, from simple irritations to cancer.
The second directive concerns national limits for the emission of four major atmospheric pollutants responsible for acidification, ozone pollution and eutrophication (adding nutrients to water courses, which upsets ecosystems, promotes the spread of algae and depletes oxygen levels). These four pollutants are sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia and volatile organic compounds (such as hydrocarbon or solvent vapours).
The agreement reached by the European Parliament and the Council at the end of an arduous conciliation procedure covers both directives. On the one hand, it concerns derogations from the new limits laid down for nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from old power stations (essentially coal-fired stations); on the other hand, it sets a long-term deadline for reducing the real health risks associated with atmospheric pollution.
Power stations under surveillance
In the 15 Member States of the pre-enlargement EU, there are some 2000 large combustion plants with a power output equal to or exceeding 50 Megawatts generating electricity primarily for industrial purposes. The European Parliament position prevailed in this area: as of 2016, a ceiling of 200 mg/m3 will be applied to nitrogen oxide emissions from solid-fuel fired plants. This represents a 50% reduction compared to the current limits. This limit was a key reference point in the accession negotiations with the countries from Central and Eastern Europe.
The European Parliament was also partly responsible for the requirement that existing plants be covered by the legislation on the same basis as new ones. It fought vigorously througout the negotiations to reduce the derogations demanded by the Council for old polluting plants. Finally, it insisted on a binding time limit while the Member States advocated unlimited derogations for fear that the new provisions would cause significant job losses by forcing these old installations, and the mines supplying them, to close.
Large combustion plants operating at peak times are currently exempt from the 200 mg/m3 ceiling, but they will be subject to increasingly strict restrictions to be introduced gradually between 2008 and 2016. At the same time, the Commission has pledged to put forward dates for their definitive closure. A derogation for anthracite-fired plants (in the UK and Spain) will lapse in 2018.
The European Parliament succeeded in ensuring that the Directive on national emission limits sets the year 2020 as the target date for achieving the long term objective of not exceeding critical ceilings and of protecting human health from the risks associated with atmospheric pollution. The year 2010 is the medium-term target date for achieving binding limits for each Member State. The long-term objective is a 50% reduction in the number of areas where critical loads of acidifying pollutants are exceeded and a two-thirds reduction in episodes of ground-level ozone loads above the critical level for human health.
Another feather in Parliament's cap is the clause obliging the Commission to carry out a mid-term review in 2010 to assess progress towards achieving the specific targets laid down for the Community as a whole and, if necessary, to propose new measures. Parliament also succeeded in including a provision requiring the Commission to look into pollution caused by shipping and aviation and to put forward measures to reduce it.