Germany, France, Spain, and the UK are among 11 governments that have asked the European Commission to retrospectively raise their ‘emission ceilings’ after breaching their national air pollution limits in 2016.
Green groups have also warned that the governments of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, and Luxembourg are attempting to use a legal loophole to hide their failure to cut harmful air pollution.
The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) is Europe’s largest network of environmental organizations with 141 members in over 30 countries.
The European Union’s National Emission Ceilings Directive sets absolute caps for the amount of pollution allowed by any one country within a year. However, governments can request that the limits set for previous years be raised, if certain circumstances apply. This process is known as an ‘inventory adjustment’, but campaigners say that granting these adjustments undermines the law as targets can be raised after they have already been missed.
Margherita Tolotto, EEB’s Air Quality Policy Officer said:
“Earlier this year we welcomed the Commission’s decision to send a number of governments to court for failing to clean up their toxic air. Now we are asking the Commission to once again step up and protect Europeans from harmful pollution.”
A number of governments have applied for their 2016 limits to be retroactively raised. The European Commission must now carefully examine their requests and decide whether they should be granted.
In a letter sent by the EEB, AirClim and ClientEarth to European Commissioner Karmenu Vella, EEB Secretary General Jeremy Wates said that the use of inventory adjustments should be kept to the “strict minimum” and that it should be considered whether governments have taken any action to tackle additional emissions before granting any adjustments.
National emission ceilings are designed to work in tandem with ambient air quality rules that set limits on the concentrations of pollutants in the air we breathe in towns and cities.
The most recent adjustment requests concern emission ceilings for nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH3) and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs). All governments asking for adjustments to their NOx limits used “road transportation” as their justification, with the NH3 and NMVOC adjustments mostly linked to agricultural activities.
“Governments are arguing that their limits should be raised because science is proving the problem is worse than we thought – for example by showing just how polluting dirty diesel cars really are. This is an astonishingly illogical justification. Not only does it help to hide a serious health threat from the public, it also protects cheating companies from deserved criticism and appropriate consequences. Let’s not forget, it was national authorities in Member States that failed to properly check vehicle emissions, the EU should not allow governments to hide their failure to deliver on their original commitments.”
While some governments used the Dieselgate scandal to justify raising their limits for NOx, the requests also highlight the increasing impact of agricultural emissions on urban air pollution.
Ammonia gets into the air when fields are fertilized and animal waste breaks down. It combines with industrial emissions to create extremely harmful fine particles. Unlike other air pollutants, overall ammonia emissions in Europe are on the rise, yet five countries are asking for these limits to be raised.
Earlier this year, the European Commission confirmed it was sending Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Romania and Hungary to Europe’s top court for persistently failing to improve their air quality. Spain, Slovakia and the Czech Republic were spared further legal action but warned their efforts would be monitored closely.
Environment Commissioner Vella has stressed the importance of EU action to tackle harmful air pollution citing that European Commission’s aim of being ‘big on the big things’ and saying, “It doesn’t get bigger than the loss of life due to air pollution.”