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European Commission


Brussels, 18 December 2013

Questions and answers on the EU Clean Air Policy Package

  1. Why is air pollution a problem?

Poor air quality is a major health risk, causing lung diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. Children, the elderly and citizens suffering from asthma and respiratory conditions are most affected. As well as negative effects on health, air pollution has considerable economic impacts, cutting short lives, increasing medical costs, and reducing productivity through lost working days. Air pollution also has impacts the environment, affecting the quality of fresh water, soil, and ecosystems.

In 2010, more than 400 000 people are estimated to have died prematurely from air pollution in the EU, and almost two-thirds of the EU land area was exposed to excess nutrient above safe levels. Air pollution can also damage materials and buildings, and some air pollutants behave like greenhouse gases that cause climate change. The economic cost of the health impacts alone is huge, estimated at EUR 330-940 billion (3-9% of EU GDP).

  1. What are the main air pollutants – and where do they come from?

Air pollution is caused mainly by economic activities such as industry, transport, energy and agriculture, as well as some domestic household activities like heating. The major air pollutants are:

  • Particulate matter (PM) is fine dust, emitted by road vehicles, shipping, power generation and households, and from natural sources such as sea salt, wind-blown soil and sand. Health concerns focus on particles of less than 10 micrometres (μm) in diameter (PM10) – especially those of less than 2.5 μm across (PM2.5). It can cause contributing to respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer. Black carbon is the sooty part of particulates emitted from combustion.

  1. Ground-level ozone (O3) is a secondary pollutant produced by complex chemical reactions of NOx and VOCs (including methane) in sunlight. It can decrease lung function, aggravate asthma and other lung diseases, and causes damage to agricultural crops, forests, and plants, by reducing their growth rates.

  2. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is emitted by power generation, industry, shipping and households. It harms human health through the formation of secondary PM and contributes to acidification3 of soils and inland waters.

  3. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are emitted by road vehicles, shipping, power generation, industry and households. Like SO2, they harm human health by forming secondary PM and contribute to acid rain, but it also causes eutrophication and also a key component in increased levels of ground-level ozone (O3).

  4. Ammonia (NH3) is emitted by activities linked to manure and fertilisers management in agriculture and the use of fertilisers in agriculture. It harms human health as a building block for secondary PM, and contributes to acidification and eutrophication.

  5. Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are emitted from solvents in products and industry, road vehicles, household heating and power generation. VOCs are the key component in the formation of ground-level ozone.

  6. Methane (CH4) is emitted by natural sources such as wetlands, as well as human activities such as leakage from natural gas systems and the raising of livestock. Methane is a key building block in the formation of ozone, as well as a powerful greenhouse gas.

  1. What are the main components of the clean air policy package?

  1. A Clean Air Programme for Europe, which describes the problem and sets out new interim objectives for reducing health and environmental impacts up to 2030. It also defines the necessary emission reduction requirements for the key pollutants and the policy agenda that will be necessary to achieve the objectives;

  2. A revised National Emission Ceilings Directive (NECD), containing updated national ceilings (caps) for six key air pollutants (PM, SO2, NOx, VOCs, NH3 and CH4) for 2020 and 2030;

  3. A new Directive for Medium-sized Combustion Plants between 1 and 50 MWth.

  4. A ratification proposal for the amended Gothenburg Protocol under the 1979 UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.

  1. Who will benefit from the package, and how?

All EU citizens will benefit from improved air quality, but children, the elderly and citizens suffering from asthma and respiratory conditions will benefit the most. Industry will also benefit because measures to reduce air pollution will boost innovation and enhance European competitiveness in the field of green technology. Air pollution is a worldwide problem, and the demand for low-emitting products and production methods is expected to increase rapidly in the short and long term. Public authorities will benefit too, as the new policy will help them reach existing air pollution standards.

  1. What is currently being done at international and EU level to tackle air pollution?

Air pollution crosses national borders so it is a matter of international concern. International cooperation takes place under the 1979 UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP), which has a number of legally binding protocols. The Gothenburg Protocol to Abate Acidification, Eutrophication and Ground-level Ozone, for example, was adopted in 1999. It aims at limiting air emissions of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, VOCs, ammonia and from Europe and North America, setting national emission ceilings for the main air pollutants which may not be exceeded by 2010. The Protocol was revised in 2012, with new ceilings agreed for 2020.

At EU level, the main components of the air quality policy framework are:

  1. The 2005 EU Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution, setting out strategic policy objectives, which have now been updated;

  2. The 2001 National Emission Ceilings Directive (NECD), establishing national emission ceilings for 2010 for all Member States covering four main pollutants, which has now been revised;

  3. The Ambient Air Quality Directives, setting local air quality limits which may not be exceeded anywhere in the EU (this Directive has not been revised at this point in time); and

  4. Source-specific legislation designed to limit emissions from specific economic sectors, such as the Industrial Emissions Directive, the Euro standards for vehicles, energy efficiency standards, fuel standards for ships, and so on.

  1. What has EU air policy achieved so far, and what is the ultimate EU objective for air pollution?

EU and international policies have reduced some air pollution problems in recent decades. Sulphur dioxide emissions (the cause of acid rain) have been cut by more than 80% in the past two decades, and nitrogen oxides and VOCs by 40-50%, for example. Despite this, the EU is far short of its long-term objective as outlined in the agreed 7th Environmental Action Programme, which is to achieve levels of air quality that do not have significant negative impacts on human health and the environment.

  1. What is the difference between EU air pollution emission ceilings and EU air quality standards?

  1. EU national emission ceilings are upper limits for total emissions of certain air pollutants that Member States will have to respect by a certain date, to push down background concentrations and limit transboundary air pollution. Existing ceilings are in place for 2010, as set out in the UNECE Gothenburg Protocol in 1999 and the EU National Emission Ceilings Directive, NECD (2001/81/EC). New ceilings (which are called national emission reduction commitments) for 2020 were agreed recently in a revised Gothenburg Protocol, and are proposed for 2020 and 2030 in a revised NECD as part of the clean air policy package.

  2. EU air quality standards are local concentration limit values for the air pollutants most harmful to health, as set out in the EU ambient air quality Directive, AAQD (2008/50/EC), which have to be respected everywhere in the EU with a view to provide a general protection for all against harmful air pollution levels. Achieving the air quality standards often require a combination of local measures addressing particular air pollution hotspots, and reducing background emissions by implementing the NECD. The AAQD entered into force as late as 2010, and has not been revised as part of the air policy review.

  1. Why was the existing EU air quality standards in the Ambient Air Quality Directive not revised? Are they not too weak compared to the WHO standards?

The existing air quality standards in the Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD) were carefully examined in the review, and it is clear that they are insufficient in relation to the WHO air quality guidelines on air pollution, which represent the levels where health risks are minimized. But it is also clear that further tightening existing EU air quality standards will be ineffective unless we see real cuts in air pollution from the main sources. As many Member States are currently facing infringement cases for failing to reach existing standards, proposing stricter standards at this point in time may prove counter-productive. Instead, the new policy proposes stricter emission ceilings in the revised NECD and, together with new source legislation, this will pave the way for tightened standards in the Ambient Air Quality Directive at a later stage.

Nevertheless, the Commission will also consider simplifying the implementing measures of the Ambient Air Quality Directive without revising the core obligations, in the context of comitology.

  1. Why is a new Directive to cut emissions from Medium-sized Combustion Plants needed?

The review of air policy that preceded this package of measures revealed a gap in EU source legislation for smaller energy plants for street blocks or large buildings, and small industry installations (1-50 MWth). This new instrument is designed to close this gap and make a significant contribution to reduce pollution of NOx, SO2 and PM by setting limit values for new and existing installations, together with a simple registration scheme. In this way, the Directive will help deliver a significant part of Member States' emission reduction obligations. The Directive is also necessary to avoid possible trade-offs between air quality and increased biomass use, which may otherwise result in increased air pollution.

  1. Does this proposal go far enough – isn't the time frame of 2050 to achieve the WHO air quality guidelines is too far away?

The WHO air quality guidelines are very challenging, especially in air pollution hotspots such as large cities. The proposed policy is based on available technology, and represents a careful balance between benefits and costs. It sets the pathway to significant improvements in the long term, but with the help of larger, more structural changes, such as moving to a low carbon economy, progress will be faster. If we agree on an ambitions post 2020 climate package, for which the Commission will present a proposal in 2014, overall air policy objectives can be reached well before 2050.

  1. Why is the Commission proposing new air policy in times of economic crisis?

There is compelling evidence that air pollution has a serious impact on health. One of the more recent findings came from the WHO, which now classifies air pollution and particulate matter as carcinogenic. Failing to act on this evidence is not an option – and urgent action is needed at both Member State and EU level.

Air pollution is a transboundary problem, which can only be solved through international cooperation. EU air policy has a good track record in this area, and much progress has already been made. This shows that the policy works – but we need ensure that existing legislation is implemented in the short term, and identify a strategic pathway towards achieving the overall air quality objective in the longer term.

Air pollution is a serious and growing problem around the world, especially in major cities such as Beijing, Bangkok, Mexico City and Los Angeles. As a consequence, the demand for low emission products and processes is about to increase dramatically. Some of the US air legislation is already more stringent than in the EU (for example on particulate matter), and China and many other emerging economies are about to strengthen their policies on air pollution, both in terms of regulation and investments. The air policy package will help EU business to maintain its position as world leader in providing this green technology. This means that air quality policy is not only an environmental objective, but also an economic opportunity and a driver for innovation: a strengthened air quality regime in the EU will actually benefit European competitiveness.

  1. Which transport measures will be proposed as part of the air review package?

The main priority for transport policy will be to ensure that the existing legislation fully delivers on air pollution, in particular with regard to the new Euro 6 standards for vehicles. In addition, the Non Road Mobile Machinery Directive will be revised shortly to ensure maximum benefits for air pollution, the Directive on sulphur content in marine fuels will be implemented, and EU-harmonised voluntary top runner benchmarks for super low emission vehicles (SULEVs) will be considered for use by Member States to tackle air pollution in hotspot areas.

  1. What will be done on short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) in the air policy review?

Two air pollutants are relevant from a climate policy perspective:

  1. New emission ceilings for methane, which is both a precursor and a powerful greenhouse gas, are proposed in the revised NECD on the basis of zero cost investments.

  • The priority for black carbon, the sooty component of particulates emitted from combustion, is to include new obligations in the revised NECD to strengthen the inventory methodology, with a view to improve the knowledge base and pave the way for possible future emission ceilings. By limiting black carbon emissions, we will tackle both the negative impacts on health and slow down global warming.

  1. In what way is the clean air policy package based on scientific evidence?

EU air policy builds on a long-standing and robust scientific basis for air policy. In the underlying policy review supporting the policy package, efforts were made to ensure that the new policy was based on the latest scientific findings. For example, the Commission has worked closely with the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) to review and validate the WHO air quality guidelines, and developed the most advanced EU emission projection model currently available. The Commission has also launched several other studies covering for example ozone pollution, non-compliance of current NEC ceilings, and transboundary pollution.

  1. What are the main health benefits from the package? Can these benefits be monetised? And what are the costs?

When implemented, the clean air policy package is estimated to avoid 58 000 premature deaths. The corresponding economic benefits can be monetized based on robust scientific methodology, resulting in about €40-140 billion per year in 2030

The costs of pollution abatement to implement the package are estimated to reach € 3.4 billion per year in 2030. This means that the monetized benefits will be about 12-40 times higher than the costs.

The package will also provide about €3 billion in direct economic benefits to society due to higher productivity of the workforce (€1850 million), lower healthcare costs (€650 million), higher crop yields (€230 million) and less damage to buildings (€120 million), and add the equivalent of around 100 000 additional jobs due to increased productivity and competitiveness because of fewer workdays lost.

The proposal is estimated to have a positive net impact on economic growth.

  1. What are the main environmental benefits from the package? Can these benefits be monetised?

When implemented, the clean air policy package is estimated to:

  1. save 123 000 km2 of ecosystems from nitrogen pollution (more than half the area of Romania),

  2. save 56 000 km2 protected Natura 2000 areas (more than the entire area of Croatia) from nitrogen pollution,

  3. save 19 000 km2 forest ecosystems from acidification.

While these ecosystem benefits are very significant, there is yet no robust scientific methodology available to monetize the corresponding costs and benefits. Thus, the total monetized benefits calculated for implementing the clean air policy package does not include any ecosystem benefits at all, meaning that they are considerably underestimated.

  1. What can Member States do themselves to meet existing air quality standards?

This is for Member States to determine. Some of the available measures include:

  1. Environmental zones (low emission zones) with, for example, restrictions for older/heavier vehicles and industrial activities in hotspot areas;

  2. Improving clean public transport and transport infrastructure;

  3. Local or regional restrictions on the use of solid fuels (coal) for small scale heating;

  4. Economic incentives (e.g. fees/taxes/road pricing schemes) e.g. for cleaner vehicles, retrofits and small combustion appliances (heating);

  5. Promote better building insulation;

  6. Develop low emission energy policy for renewable energy to ensure minimal PM emissions from biomass combustion;

  7. Promote best practices and technologies for domestic heating appliances, in particular stoves;

  8. Introduce national measures for agriculture to reduce regard to ammonia emissions;

  9. Promote general awareness-raising on air pollution through targeted campaigns and internet-based information linked to the local air quality situation;

  10. Short-term actions to protect citizens against peak pollution (PM or ozone smog episodes), such as health alerts through media and IT appliances, temporary speed limits or traffic bans.

  1. In many countries the economic crisis forces poor people to increase their use of heating systems with higher air pollution such as wood-fire or coal. How can this trend be reversed, and what can the EU do to help? Are there successful examples of how this is tackled in MS?

A key measure to reduce both pollution and poverty is to reduce to demand for solid fuels. The Energy Efficiency Directive and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive are designed to promote such development, and some Member States can provide economic incentives to support better insulation of houses, double glazing, or replacement/retrofitting of heating systems. In addition, the EU has adopted or is soon expected to adopt requirements for new heaters within the Ecodesign Directive, and many receive EU funding, such as the Ultra-Low Dust project, which aims at providing solutions that are cheap and easy to operate.

Another important measure is to raise awareness on how to minimize emissions from solid fuel heaters. A lot of pollution is due to mis-use and ignorance on what and how fuels should be burned. Some Member States already promote this through information campaigns and labelling schemes. Some Member States have also successfully banned the sales of low quality fuels such as "smoky coal".

  1. Why has it taken so long to propose changes?

The proposal is based on a thorough policy review that has taken three years to conduct, starting in early 2011 and finalised in October 2013. It also aligns with an international UNECE agreement to amend the Gothenburg Protocol, which sets out the main lines for the National Emission Ceilings Directive, with new emission ceilings for 2020 agreed in 2012. The Ambient Air Quality Directive, which sets out local air quality standard which must be respected everywhere in the EU, was adopted as late as 2008.

  1. What will happen to the policy package now?

The package will now be considered by the other EU institutions, with a view to negotiate and agree on the different elements in package. This process may take 1-3 years.

See also IP/13/1274

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