During their June 15th debate on the European Commission’s proposal for a directive on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants (NEC Directive), several EU environment ministers asked for flexible air pollution targets.
As stated in the outcome of the Council meeting:
“Air pollution is the most significant environmental cause of death in the EU, leading to 400 000 premature deaths each year. The Commission's proposal establishes emission reduction targets so as to reduce the number of premature deaths at least by half by 2030. Ministers highlighted the importance of this objective but called for realistic and feasible targets, some demanding a lowering of the envisaged national ceilings for certain pollutants.
Several ministers advocated for more flexibility for the long-term targets, to take into account the uncertainty of future developments, such as the economic situation or technical progress. Other ministers, however, underlined the need to preserve binding targets and warned that too much flexibility could put at risk the level of ambition of the directive.
Member states expressed concerns about how some sectors may be affected by the directive, especially agriculture, and they pointed out the need to take this into account when determining the emission limits. Some ministers welcomed the proposal to leave methane out of the scope of this directive, as stated in the current Presidency compromise text. This responded to concerns about possible overlaps with commitments related to greenhouse gas emission reduction targets”.
Following the deliberations of the June 15th Environment Council, a series of leaked documents proving the UK Government’s efforts to water down the NEC directive were published. According to The Guardian, a paper sent by the UK government to Brussels states that in case the new limits become EU law, the UK would have to import coal from third countries, due to the high sulphur content of British coal, which would lead to the closure of coal mines and increase unemployment and socio-economic deprivation.
Notwithstanding the opinion of the environment ministers, the European Parliament’s ENVI Committee called for more ambitious and tougher national emissions ceilings on air pollutants. On 15 July, the environment MEPs adopted a report that wants the currently debated NEC directive to include caps on mercury (HG) from 2020. It also supports the new caps in all member states on emissions of the air pollutants sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC), methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), and particulate matter (PM2,5) to be achieved by 2020 and 2030, which are proposed by the Commission.
According to rapporteur MEP Julie Girling "the new NEC directive is the opportunity to tackle this important health issue, by putting in place the benchmarks for Member States to work towards. We cannot underestimate the benefits that would result from cleaning up the air we breathe”. In an unusual political move however, Girling voted against her own report, stating that “a coalition of socialists, liberals and greens have focused on increasing the already ambitious targets set by the Commission”. The report was adopted by 38 votes to 28, with 2 abstentions.