Nine EU Member States ask EC for permission to breach air quality rules

Nine EU Member States have asked the European Commission (EC) for permission to pollute above national limits set in EU law, according to the European Environmental Bureau (EBB).

Austria, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Finland, France, Ireland and Luxembourg have all asked for the limits that should have been met in 2015 to be raised so that they no longer appear to have breached them.

The European Union’s National Emission Ceilings Directive sets absolute caps for the amount of pollution allowed by any one country within a year.

These caps are designed to work in tandem with European air quality rules, currently breached in 130 cities in 23 Member States, that should protect citizens by limiting the concentration of pollution of the air we breathe “on the street”.

Governments can request exceptions to the national caps for previous years, called “inventory adjustments”, if certain circumstances apply. Such moves have been labelled as “get out of jail free cards” because they allow Member States to avoid repercussions for breaching otherwise binding limits.

The requests are criticised in a letter sent to Commissioner Vella  from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), ClientEarth, Transport & Environment, AirClim and the Health and Environment Alliance.

According to the EBB, it holds Europe’s largest network of environmental organizations with 141 members in more than 30 countries.

Nitrogen oxides

All but one of the requests are made by governments claiming they were unaware of additional emissions from diesel vehicles, only Finland is not asking for an additional allowance for nitrogen oxides (NOx) linked to this source.

Germany is singled out in the letter for particular criticism because the country issued the approvals for most of the vehicle models found to be exceeding their limits across Europe.

The letter also points out that it was known that road vehicles were responsible for additional emissions long before the “Dieselgate” scandal broke. It argues that by asking for exceptions now, governments are simply trying to make up for their own policy failures on air quality:

“[National] authorities had much time at their disposal to require carmakers to comply, including mandatory recalls and withdrawal of approvals to take the polluting vehicles off the road. Had the authorities of Germany, France, Spain and Luxembourg… taken action in line with the Euro Standards Regulation, the inventory adjustments – as well as high NOx emissions in those countries – could have been avoided.”

Diesel engines are responsible for vehicle emissions of various pollutants including nitrogen oxides (NOx). These harmful gases contribute to the formation of smog and acid rain and have a damaging effect on human health and the environment, including being linked to a host of respiratory diseases.  

The largest single-point sources of NOx pollution in Europe are large industrial plants, particularly coal-fired power stations.  In April, Germany unsuccessfully tried to block tighter controls on coal-fired power stations due to the high NOx emissions of German brown coal (lignite) power plants. Those new rules are now set to be published this week (week starting 31 July, 2017).

The news comes shortly after the UK’s Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, announced that Britain was to ban all new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040 amid fears that rising levels of nitrogen oxide pose a major risk to public health.

The commitment, which follows a similar pledge in France, is part of the government’s much-anticipated clean air plan, which has been at the heart of a protracted high court legal battle. 

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