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European Commission

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Speech: Air quality: Meeting the challenge of protecting our health and environment

EEB Conference “Clean Air Everywhere: Blowing the winds of change into European air policy”

Brussels, 8 January 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a real pleasure to be here today. I would like to thank the EEB and Soot Free for the Climate for organising this excellent kick-off for the Year of Air and the Representation of North-Rhine Westphalia for hosting us.

This is the first of what we want to be a series of events leading up to the review of the EU air policy in the autumn. I would like to take this opportunity to set out:

  • why further action on air quality is so important

  • what is driving the main problems, and

  • how we propose that we respond to them.

Let me start with the “WHY”.

European air quality policy has been something of a success story over many decades, so why is further action so important? It is true that the benefits of early and sustained action on air quality are considerable: the air we breathe today is much cleaner than in previous decades. It is one of a few areas where we have seen an absolute decoupling between economic growth and emissions. Acid rain is the classic example: a problem that ravaged Europe in the 1980s has been practically solved, by an 80-90% decrease in emissions even while major economic growth has taken place.

But if we have achieved so much already, why do we need to do more? Basically because there are still major challenges to human health from poor air quality. We are still far from our objective to achieve levels of air quality that do not give rise to significant negative impacts on human health and the environment”.

The figures are simply not acceptable: Our latest analysis estimates 420.000 premature deaths from air pollution in the EU in 2010.

We have to recognise that some of the EU air quality standards that were established in the late nineties are not being respected. And this is in spite of the extra time and flexibility that Member States have had to implement the standards. This has led to a situation where the majority of Member States are infringing EU law on air quality. As a consequence, the health of many people is suffering, and costs to the health suppliers and the economy are rising.

In addition, when we look at the impact on the environment, two-thirds of the Natura 2000 network of protected sites is currently affected by eutrophication from air pollution.

And the public is particularly concerned: the results of the latest Eurobarometer on air, published today, show the importance the public attaches to air quality. So, the Air Quality Policy Review responds to a clear demand for action.

These are the major challenges we face. But let us turn now to WHAT: what are the drivers of our problems, and how do we address them?

We see five main causes emerging from the on-going review:

The first is inadequacies in air policy governance. In many Member States, responsibility for air quality lies with regional or local authorities. However, many sources of pollution are outside their zone of competence. This has often forced local authorities to apply more expensive measures to the sources of pollution that they can control. So we need to discuss with Member States ways and means of improving this so that our common objectives for better air quality are actually delivered to more people for instance through improving the link between national and local or regional air quality management programmes.

The second is the persistence of trans-boundary pollution. For example, for many countries, less than 50% of the observed PM2.5 concentrations derive from their own emissions. Air pollution is now understood to travel longer distances and faster than previously assumed. Countries are not only receivers but they are as well sources of trans-boundary pollution. We need to limit the overall emissions both in the EU and internationally to control the development of background concentrations in Europe. The recent amendment of the Gothenburg Protocol and the forthcoming revision of the National Emission Ceilings Directive, are specifically designed to do so.

The third main cause is lined to traffic emissions that have not come down as expected. This is especially true of NOx and NO2 and is linked to the source legislation contributing emissions. It is a key issue which I will come back to.

The fourth is that not all sectors have contributed to pollution reductions in the past despite the high cost-effectiveness potential. In some sectors, such as the power sector, road transport, energy intensive industries and waste management, effective regulation has decreased emissions substantially in the last two decades. To achieve significant further pollution reduction, we must do more in other sectors, where the potential for cost-effective reduction can be much greater.

In some cases, such as medium-scale combustion and manure spreading, the corresponding regulation lies under my responsibility, and I aim to bring forward proposals in the review package or shortly after.

For those policies for which my fellow Commissioners are responsible, the challenge is integration. We will show what level of ambition we need from future transport policy, or non-road mobile machinery or Eco-design, as a cost-effective contribution to our air quality goals. Once this is clear, we can work with our colleagues to ensure that it is properly implemented in the future policy developments in their areas.

Emissions from international shipping are a further area for attention. We have recently achieved tighter controls on future sulphur emissions. But the most effective controls - the designation of environmental emission control areas through the IMO's MARPOL Convention – are the responsibility of Member States. We will need to explore options to better encourage such measures where they are cost-effective, while respecting the competence of the Member States.

We also need to think in new, innovative ways about source controls. For instance, if we want to encourage so-called super low emitting vehicles, as the US is already doing, we might look for such an EU “SULEV-type benchmark” that Member States can use when introducing differentiated fees for hotspot areas, or tax incentives for faster fleet turnover. Such an approach could be extended to other products, such as domestic stoves and boilers, to incentivise accelerated replacement in areas where air quality needs to be improved. Benchmarks can also be used to standardise retrofit of some of the most polluting vehicles in urban areas.

The final driver I want to consider is the need to ensure full coherence with other policies, in particular the positive synergies between air quality and climate change. In most cases, these policies are mutually reinforcing, but we need to avoid environmental trade-offs, to ensure for instance that a switch to diesel or biomass fuels doesn't compromise air quality. The good news here is that such trade-offs can be easily addressed through technological solutions driven by targeted smart regulation.

These are the five causes behind the remaining challenges as I see them. In tackling these causes I will follow three strategic objectives:

The first is to ensure compliance with the current legislation as soon as possible, especially in the sources of pollution, mainly linked to traffic; as well as to strengthen effective enforcement, and reduce the trans-boundary pollution.

Second, we need to ensure coherence with our international obligations. The recently amended Gothenburg Protocol includes new emission ceilings for 2020, including for particulate matter, and our legislation needs to be fully aligned with these developments. We will also work to ensure broader ratification of the Gothenburg Protocol, so as to extend effective emission control to countries outside the EU –an increasing source of emissions.

This clear the way for the third and perhaps most important objective: to reduce further the exposure of citizens and ecosystems to air pollution in the medium and long term. For the long term, I would suggest that for health, the vision of no significant negative impacts from air pollution means achievement of WHO health guidelines dynamic in themselves and based on the latest available knowledge and science. For the environment, it means no ecosystems stressed by acidification or eutrophication. This should be our ultimate goal, and it should be achieved by 2050. To get there, we will propose new interim objectives for the period 2025-2030, to provide a stable policy framework and secure the necessary investments in reducing pollution.

Finally about the “HOW”.

So, how will we achieve these objectives? We have just launched a public consultation on the possible options, and I encourage you all respond with your views. But some of the main lines are already fairly clear.

Our emerging impact analysis shows that the prospects for widespread compliance in the next few years are good, based on full implementation of existing policies,. But there are two very important caveats. The first is that while this alleviates the need for local action, it doesn't eliminate it. There will still be cases of serious localised pollution, which only national measures can tackle.

The second caveat is that compliance is crucially dependent on reducing real world emissions from diesel cars. I mentioned this above as the key example of a failure of source legislation affecting the achievement of our air quality objectives. By addressing the key issues such as the nature of the new road-test cycle and the timetable for introduction, we have an opportunity to put us back on the right path.

Let us also be clear about the potential for further action. By applying existing technology on the widest possible scale, we can reduce health impacts by as much as 100.000 premature deaths a year, and eliminate a third of the eutrophication impact on Natura 2000 sites. Moreover, we can achieve 75% of the gain for 20% of the overall cost.

We should also be more explicit about how our future policy will link with the forthcoming climate and energy policy for 2030. We need to set our targets so as to avoid short-term, expensive investments, when the same result could be obtained by the deep structural changes driven by the same policy. There is clear evidence that strong climate and energy policy will have positive impacts for air quality in the EU as a whole. It will generally reduce air pollution as well as the costs of air pollution control measures. But it is already clear that specific air pollution control measures are needed to complement any future climate and energy policy. Potential examples are regulation of particulate emissions from domestic combustion, non-road mobile machinery and transport, or ammonia reductions from agriculture.

There are also the obvious synergies on reducing Short Lived Climate Pollutants which will simultaneously benefit health and limit climate change. An important starting point is to develop accurate emission inventories, so that we know what and how to measure. Methane is another pollutant that impacts both air (as a precursor to ozone) and climate change (a greenhouse gas). We have brought down emissions in the EU by some 30% over the last two decades, and we will look at the case for achieving further reductions.

In closing, I want to consider briefly the overall approach to regulating ambient air quality. Today, I have mainly focused on reducing overall population and ecosystem exposure. But it is equally important to safeguard a minimum level of protection for all EU citizens. In fact, these two objectives reinforce each other. Policies driving emission reductions at source, through EU legislation or through national measures under the NEC Directive, will bring down concentrations across the EU, first into compliance with existing standards, and then even lower.

Acting now will bring significant cost savings in the public sector as well as cost savings for companies. The cost of lost working time in many parts of Europe can be very significant. So investing in clean air brings many economic and social benefits as well as environmental ones. There are also economic opportunities favouring an ambitious policy. Let's take the US and China as examples.

We know that the US air quality legislation is among the most stringent in the world – with California leading the way. We also know that China is now stepping up their air quality monitoring requirements and emission controls significantly. And we know that other emerging economies will follow suit. This will create an enormous demand for products and industrial processes that emit less. This is why a strengthened air quality regime in the EU will actually benefit European competitiveness. Weakened air quality standards, as some call for, we would in fact be a major disservice to our industry. Let's not kill industry with kindness.

Sustaining air quality is therefore not only an environmental objective, but also as an economic opportunity. As part of the review, I will be looking at how we can really create opportunities for innovation in the clean air sector, to support our industry to invest in clean technologies for clean air. This is a sector where many European companies are world leaders in an expanding market with potential to create new growth and new jobs.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have achieved a lot in the past years to improve our air quality, but we still need to make progress. Our health and our environment require it, and our economy will benefit from it.

I hope I have given some indication of the direction our thoughts are moving in to deliver cleaner air in the coming decades, so that we may live longer, be healthier, and protecting our most fragile ecosystems better. I very much welcome your input to this important process, and look forward to your comments and questions.

It is an important day for our future air policy orientation, so let’s take time and discuss thoroughly.

Thank you for listening.

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