Particulates, Smog Targeted in European Clean Air Strategy

BRUSSELS, Belgium, September 22, 2005 (ENS) - The European Commission Wednesday proposed a formal strategy for achieving improvements in air quality across Europe. The thematic strategy on air pollution aims by 2020 to cut the annual number of premature deaths from diseases related to air pollution by almost 40 percent from the 2000 level and to reduce the area of forests damaged by airborne pollutants. But Europe's largest federation of environmental groups says the strategy does not go far enough.

While covering all major air pollutants, the strategy pays special attention to fine dust, also known as particulates, and ground level ozone, or smog, because these pose the greatest danger to human health, the Commission said.

Under the strategy the Commission is proposing to start regulating fine airborne particulates, known as PM2.5, which penetrate deep into human lungs. For the first time EU law would require reductions in average PM2.5 concentrations throughout each of the 25 European Union member states and set a cap on concentrations in the most polluted areas.

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Smoke from a British factory complex on the Teeside contains fine particulates and contributes to smog. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto.com)
The strategy is expected to reduce the number of premature deaths related to fine particulate matter and ozone from 370,000 a year in 2000 to 230,000 in 2020. Without the strategy, the Commission calculates that there would still be over 290,000 premature deaths a year in 2020.

Environment Commisioner Stavros Dimas said, “The air strategy will substantially improve Europe’s air quality. It will prevent thousands of premature deaths from pollution related illnesses and drastically reduce damage to crops, forests and other other ecosystems."

"Although there will be costs involved in improving air quality, these will be offset at least five-fold by the benefits to society as a whole," Dimas said.

But Europe's largest federation of environmental organizations, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said Wednesday that it is "very disappointed" that the strategy on air pollution "does not go far enough in improving Europe 's air quality."

The EEB faults the strategy's legislative proposal because it fails to set a legal obligation to reduce concentrations of health damaging fine particles (PM 2.5 ) by 2020, choosing instead an indicative target.

"The Commission's own analysis has shown that each year some 350,000 people die prematurely due to exposure to fine particles alone," says Kerstin Meyer, air pollution policy officer at the EEB. "In addition, millions of people suffer from respiratory illnesses. A legally binding requirement to make real reductions on particles emissions would have been the only right answer."

"Instead," she said, "the Commission decided to postpone such target setting for many years and to make the directive into a toothless tiger."

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Stavros Dimas of Greece is the European Environment Commissioner. (Photo courtesy Office of the Commissioner)
Dimas said the Commission has sought the most cost-effective solution that is consistent with the objective of growth and employment, as outlined in the Lisbon Strategy and the EU Sustainable Development Strategy.

It is estimated that the new air quality strategy will deliver health benefits worth at least €42 billion (US$51.3 billion) per year through fewer premature deaths, less sickness, fewer hospital admissions, and improved labor productivity.

This is more than five times higher than the cost of implementing the strategy - estimated at around €7.1 billion (US$8.7 billion) per year, or about 0.05 percent of EU-25 GDP in 2020, the Commission figures.

Although there is no agreed way to express damage to ecosystems in monetary terms, the environmental benefits of reduced air pollution are "significant," says the Commission.

The air quality strategy is expected to protect several hundred thousand square kilometers of forest and other ecosystems.

European companies could gain competitive advantage by focusing research and development on less polluting technologies that third countries will eventually need to adopt, the Commission suggests.

Part of the program is to streamline air quality legislation by merging existing legal instruments into a single Ambient Air Quality Directive, a move the Commission says will contribute to better regulation.

A legislative proposal is attached to the strategy which will combine the existing Framework Directive on air quality, its daughter directives and a decision on exchange of information.

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Smoggy Athens as seen from the Parthenon (Photo courtesy Francisca Ureta Van de Wyngard)
The proposed new Ambient Air Quality Directive would cut 50 percent of existing legal texts, clarify and simplify the law and modernize reporting requirements.

More flexibility will be given to the member states for meeting the emissions target. Where they can demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable measures to implement the legislation but are nevertheless unable to comply with air quality standards in certain places, it is proposed to allow them to request an extension to the compliance deadline in the affected zones provided that strict criteria are met and plans are put in place to move towards compliance.

The Commission intends to propose a revision of the National Emissions Ceilings Directive to bring its emissions ceilings into line with the objectives of the strategy.

In addition, a range of other possible measures will be examined, such as the introduction of a new “Euro V” set of car emission standards and other initiatives in the energy, transport and agriculture sectors, the Structural Funds and international cooperation.

The air pollution strategy is one of seven thematic strategies the Commission is required to prepare under the EU’s Sixth Environmental Action Programme.

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EEB Secretary General John Hontalez (Photo courtesy EEB)
John Hontelez, secretary general of the EEB, said, "What we see here is a small step, a step too small to accept, given the still worsening state of the overall environment in Europe, and the particular health risks of air pollution."

The other strategies will cover the marine environment, waste prevention and recycling, sustainable use of resources, soils, pesticides and the urban environment. They are due to be presented over the next few months.

The thematic strategies represent a modern way of decisionmaking, the Commission believes. They are based on extensive research and consultation with stakeholders, address the issues in a holistic way that takes into account links with other problems and policy areas, and promote better regulation.

Full details of the strategy are available at: http://europa.eu.int/comm/environment/air/cafe/index.htm