Air quality the policy response

The Community response to air quality problems began in the 1970s, but it was piecemeal, was prompted more by concerns about avoiding trade distortions than about protecting human health or the environment, and has always tended to lag behind the response to water quality problems. Although the first pieces of law on vehicle emissions (70/220 and 72/306) predate the first pieces of law on water quality (two directives on detergents in 1973), the body of laws on water quality built steadily during the late 1970s, and it was not until the 1980s that the EC began taking more concerted action on issues such as transboundary air pollution and threats to the ozone layer.

For Johnson and Corcelle (1995, pp. 126-7), the relative slowness of the Community response to air quality issues can be explained in part by the energy crisis of 1973 - the governments of the member states were loathe to agree air pollution controls given that light crude oil with a low sulphur content was relatively scarce and expensive - and by the opposition offered by the politically powerful energy and automobile industries in western Europe, which proved effective at lobbying against change both with national governments and the European Commission. There was also resistance to action in West Germany, whose government was opposed throughout the 1970s to the development of pollution control laws that might impose heavy costs on German industry. Finally, because polluted water is generally more visible than polluted air, it was tempting for the Commission to focus on water in order more quickly to be able to point to the benefits of European policy.

The political and economic tides began to turn in the early 1980s as the energy crisis faded into history and public opinion in Germany became increasingly vocal about the links between air pollution and damage to forests (see Chapter 8). Once the Commission began paying more attention to air quality - from about 1983-85 - it built a substantial body of laws, some of which have become lynchpins of the entire EU environmental policy regime; notable among these is directive 88/609 on emissions from large industrial plants.

Unlike the approach to water quality control, which has been based on a limited number of approaches, EU air quality control has used or suggested a wide variety of methods, including the following:

• The setting of product quality standards, such as the sulphur content of liquid fuels and the lead content of petrol. The first such piece of law was directive 75/716 on the sulphur content of gas oils (used mainly for domestic heating and cooking and for diesel-engined road vehicles). This and subsequent amendments steadily reduced sulphur content from more than 0.5 per cent by weight to 0.1 per cent in gas oil, and to 0.05 per cent in diesel fuel (the goal of directive 93/12).

• The setting of air quality standards, notably those for sulphur dioxide, suspended particulates, lead and nitrogen dioxide. Directive 80/779 was the first piece of EC-wide law laying down mandatory standards. It set 'limit' values - which are mandatory - and 'guide' values - which are non-obligatory, and recommended as goals to which member states should aspire. Such values were set for concentrations of SO2 and suspended particulates at ground level for different times of the year. While the motive behind 80/779 was to protect human health, directive 85/203 on NO2 was designed to protect both human health and the environment.

• The use of emission limit values, notably in relation to industrial plants.

• Pollution emission 'bubbles', or the establishment of upper limits on total emissions. This has been used, for example, in relation to SO2 and NOx emissions from large combustion plants.

• Monitoring programmes aimed at improving the quality of information about specific pollutants. These have been an element of many different air quality laws, most notably directive 92/72 on ground-level ozone. This requires member states to develop a network for the collection of information on ozone, the rationale being that the chemistry behind its formation is not fully understood. Suggestions by the European Commission that the directive include the eventual setting of limit values were dropped on the basis that several member states would not have been able to meet such values (Haigh, 1992, p. 6.15-2).

• Reductions by manufacturers in the production of pollutants, as in the case of CFCs (see Chapter 10).

• Substance-oriented approaches aimed at reducing the impact of pollutants such as asbestos on both water and air.

• More controversially, the idea of imposing 'green taxes' designed to make the price of services or goods reflect their environmental costs.

The first piece of Community legislation on air pollution was a 1970 directive setting standards for emissions of carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons from motor vehicles (70/220). It was adopted in response to laws passed in 1968 and 1969 in Germany and France, respectively, which the Commission felt posed a threat to the functioning of the common market; there is no mention in the recitals to the directive of human health or environmental quality. The directive heralded a succession of amendments and elaborations; carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon limits were further reduced (74/290), emission limits were set for nitrogen oxides (77/102), limits for all three pollutants were reduced (78/665 and 83/351), limits for all three pollutants were further reduced to bring the

TABLE 7.1 Key pieces of EU law on air quality

70/220 Directive on road vehicle emissions. Sets limits for emissions of carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons from petrol-engined vehicles other than tractors and public works vehicles.

72/306 Directive on emissions from diesel-engined vehicles.

Sets limits on the opacity of emissions from diesel-engined vehicles except tractors and public works vehicles.

78/611 Directive on lead in petrol. Sets maximum limits for lead content of petrol sold in the EC.

80/779 Directive on sulphur dioxide and suspended particulate concentrations. Sets limits for ground level concentrations of SO2 and suspended particulates.

82/884 Directive on lead in the air. Sets limit values on concentrations of lead in the air, and mandatory sampling methods to be followed.

85/210 Directive on lead in petrol. Builds on 78/611 by requiring member states to make unleaded fuel available.

88/609 Directive on large combustion plants. Requires staged reduction of emissions of SO2, nitrogen oxides, and dust from plants with a rated thermal input greater than 50MW.

92/72 Directive on air pollution by ozone. Requires member states to establish network for monitoring collection of information and public warnings on ozone.

96/61 Directive on integrated pollution prevention and control. Requires application of best available technology to prevent or minimize air, water or soil pollution by industrial plants.

96/62 Directive on ambient air quality assessment and management. Outlines common methods and criteria for air quality assessment.

99/30 Directive on air pollutants. Sets limit values for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter, and lead in ambient air.

Community into line with US standards (88/76), emission limits were set for particulates (88/436), and limits were set for small cars (89/548).

Along the way, three important changes took place. First, by the early 1980s, free trade was no longer the main rationale behind reducing vehicle emissions, and the recitals for directive 83/351 quote the argument made in the First EAP for 'account to be taken of the latest scientific advances in combating atmospheric pollution'. Second, while early directives were based on the idea of 'optimal harmonization', meaning that member states were not obliged to adopt the emission standards, directive 89/548 introduced mandatory standards that were designed to be at least the same as those in force in the United States. This paved the way for the introduction of three-way catalytic converters, the devices that are fitted to vehicle exhaust systems to reduce emissions of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. When directive 91/441 extended the limits in 89/548 to all new model cars, catalytic converters became mandatory on all new cars from 1993. Third, while EC policy on vehicle emissions in the 1970s was based on regulations developed by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (see Chapter 8), rising concern in Germany about the effects of pollution on forests led to the Community taking more control over the development of its own new proposals.

The Community had also begun addressing the problem of lead in air, starting out modestly with directive 77/312 requiring member states to set up screening programmes in order to establish the lead content of blood in the population. The following year, directive 78/611 set limits on the lead content of petrol. This again came at the prompting of West Germany, which had limited the lead content of its petrol to 0.4 grammes per litre with effect from January 1972. In response, the Commission set up two committees to study the health and technical aspects of lead emissions from motor vehicles. Their work concluded that the member states allowed significantly different levels of lead in petrol, and while there was no immediate public health problem, action should be taken to prevent an increase in airborne lead levels as vehicle use increased, and to remove another technical barrier to trade (Haigh, 1992, p. 6.7-2).

When West Germany announced a further reduction in the lead content of its petrol to 0.15 g/l with effect from January

1976, the Commission responded with the proposal that was eventually adopted as directive 78/611, requiring upper limits of between 0.15 and 0.4 g/l. This was followed in 1982 by a directive setting maximum limits for lead concentrations in the air (82/884), which took six years to work its way through the system in large part because of opposition from the British government, which argued that the scientific evidence that prompted the proposal was incomplete (Haigh, 1992, p. 6.6-2). Member states were given five years to meet the limits, and were required to ensure that monitoring stations were operating wherever people were likely to be exposed to lead in air for long periods or where limit values might not be reached.

A new directive on lead in petrol (85/210) was adopted relatively quickly, in large part because of a change in attitude by the British government, prompted on the one hand by recommendations in favour of reduced lead by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, and on the other hand by a public campaign orchestrated by the Campaign for Lead Free Air (CLEAR). There was also support from West Germany, which at that point was beginning to realize that unleaded petrol was a requirement for the use of catalytic converters on vehicle exhausts, which were in turn part of the strategy to deal with acid pollution by reducing emissions of nitrogen oxides. Directive 85/210 established limits for the lead content of petrol in order both to reduce air pollution by lead and to prevent barriers to trade resulting from different limits in different member states. It allowed member states to continue selling leaded petrol, but required them to reduce the upper limit to 0.15 g/l as soon as possible. Two years later, directive 87/416 allowed member states to prohibit the marketing of low-octane leaded petrol.

The effect of these changes has been significant, with more progress made on reducing emissions of lead in the EU than of any other air pollutant bar CFCs. For example, lead emissions from petrol between 1990 and 1996 fell by 50 per cent in Britain, by 80 per cent in the Netherlands and Germany, and by 98 per cent in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden (EEA, 1998, p. 112).

Despite this success, and despite the contribution made by EU law to the reduction of other pollutants, the Commission by the early 1990s had begun to realize that its approach to air quality had its weaknesses, among which was a poor record on compliance. There were particular problems with the air quality directives, including differences in measuring and reporting requirements, differences in the criteria used by member states to designate zones where extra time was needed to meet limit values, a failure by every member state to apply guide values, and differences in the methods used to provide information in the event that limit values were exceeded (European Commission, 1995). In response, the Commission began work on a new ambient air quality framework law, which was adopted in September 1996 as directive 96/62. This set new EU-wide air quality objectives for SO2, SPM, lead, NO2 and ozone, adopted common methods and criteria for assessing air quality and making the results publicly known, and required that member states draw up action plans listing the measures they proposed taking. It also listed 12 pollutants for which daughter directives would need to be developed, setting limit values and 'alert thresholds' (levels beyond which there is a risk to human health from brief exposure, and requiring immediate action by member states).

A series of daughter directives was listed in 96/62, with timetables. A draft of the first - covering SO2, lead, fine par-ticulates and NO2, and based on World Health Organization guidelines - was published in October 1997, approved by the Council of Ministers in 1998, and adopted in 1999 as directive 99/30. A second draft directive - on benzene and CO - was published in late 1998, a year behind schedule, and a third -on polyaromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals, including cadmium, arsenic, nickel and mercury - was published in late 1999.

While directive 96/62 took care of several of the weaknesses inherent in the older separate directives, a number of its elements have been called into question (Lefevere, 1997). First, it had been suggested that a standstill clause be included, prohibiting a deterioration in air quality in zones with good levels. However, this was left out at the behest mainly of southern states such as Spain, which argued that it would be an unfair restriction on industrial development in areas with good air quality. Instead, the directive says that member states 'shall maintain the levels of pollutants . . . below the limit values and shall endeavour to preserve the best ambient air quality, com patible with sustainable development' (Article 9). Second, questions have been raised about whether or not it is a good idea to set uniform air quality objectives for the entire Community, rather than setting higher goals for more vulnerable regions. Third, surprisingly little allowance is made in the directive for dealing with the resolution of cross-border pollution, specifically for giving states the ability to work with neighbouring states when the latter are contributing to the failure of the former to meet their limit values.

Also under development in the late 1990s was a proposal first mooted in 1992 for an Auto-Oil programme aimed at bringing together the Commission and the oil and motor industries to investigate ways of reducing vehicle emissions and promoting cleaner fuels in the most cost-effective manner by 2010. What were then DGIII (industry), DGXI and DGXVII (energy) were all involved in developing the programme, which was innovative in the sense that rather than being drawn up mainly within the Commission, it was developed in consultation with the oil industry (represented by EUROPIA) and the car industry (represented by ACEA). Not surprisingly, both groups felt that the bulk of responsibility should fall on the other, with ACEA arguing that it could not build low-pollution cars unless oil companies produced cleaner fuel, and EUROPIA arguing that car companies could produce cleaner engines with existing technology and fuels (Coss, 1999).

The Commission proposal on Auto-Oil was adopted in June 1996, and immediately ran into a stumbling block when it was revealed that it would cost the motor industry 4.1 billion ecus per year for 15 years, and the oil industry only 770 million ecus. The smaller cost for the oil industry was put down to its more effective lobbying, and to the fact that while the oil industry was dealing with a single product, motor manufacturers were competing with each other (Financial Times, 17 February 1998). Problems also arose in the Council of Ministers, where poorer southern states argued that the proposals would place a major strain on their domestic oil industries, and in the European Parliament, where members felt that the proposals did not go far enough, and proposed more than 100 amendments.

Following ten weeks of discussion in early 1998 at a conciliation committee bringing together members of the EP and the Council, agreement was finally reached in July on a heavily amended Auto-Oil programme. It introduced a series of measures against air pollution from passenger cars and light commercial vehicles, and new measures on the quality of petrol and diesel fuels, all of which would be achieved with amendments to directives 70/220 and 93/12:

• Mandatory limit values were laid down for emissions of CO, hydrocarbons, NOx and suspended particulates, aimed at reducing emissions by 60-70 per cent by 2010, from 1990 levels; southern states were given longer to comply.

• On-board diagnostic systems - designed to monitor the emissions of vehicles and warn drivers if they were polluting too much - would be mandatory on all new passenger vehicles with petrol engines starting in 2000, and for diesel-powered vehicles starting in 2003.

• Tax incentives were to be allowed on all new series production vehicles which complied in advance with the limit values.

• The sale of leaded fuel was to be prohibited with effect from 1 January 2000, although a member state could ask for an extension to 2005 if it could show that the ban would result in 'severe socio-economic problems'. Most member states met this deadline with time to spare, but Italy asked for a three-year extension, and Greece and Spain for five-year extensions. Officials in the EDG were not persuaded by their arguments about 'socio-economic problems', and environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom suggested that it would set a dangerous precedent (European Voice, 28 October-3 November 1999, p. 5).

• A two-stage programme was agreed for tightening fuel quality requirements aimed at reducing the sulphur content of petrol and diesel; stage one began in 2000, and stage two is to begin in 2005.

• Car manufacturers would build vehicles with cleaner engines beginning in 2000.

• A proposal for a directive on emissions from heavy vehicles was to be discussed.

• A review of the programme would take place before the end of 1999 that could lead to stricter fuel standards with effect from 2005.

The Auto-Oil programme was followed by Auto-Oil II, designed to expand the agreement on emissions controls to sources of pollution not covered by the first programme - these include motorcycles, outboard motors, air compressors and other petrol-driven machinery and tools. Where motor manufacturers bore much of the burden for Auto-Oil I, the follow-up programme is likely to affect oil producers more squarely.

While different levels of progress have been made in each of the seven main areas upon which EU air quality policy has focused, approaches to each have developed independently. This has become a matter of concern to policymakers in recent years, and there are now signs that the EU is moving more in the direction of developing a single clean air policy (ENDS Report 288, January 1999, pp. 46-7). The trend was already suggested by the 1996 framework directive on air quality, Auto-Oil I and II, and the acidification strategy discussed in Chapter 8. By late 1998, the European Commission was suggesting that it might be better to integrate all these approaches and that the EU might consider developing an air quality strategy at five-year intervals. Each five-year cycle would begin with a review of the latest evidence of the threats posed to air quality and progress in improving air quality. The nature of air pollution would then be modelled and data collected on the cost-effectiveness of emissions reductions by source and member state, and finally proposals would be made for air quality objectives and an implementation strategy. The proposal was still under discussion as this book went to press.

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