Breathing Freely in Europe: A New Integrated Clean Air Plan

BRUSSELS, Belgium, May 7, 2001 (ENS) - The European Commission today adopted the Clean Air for Europe program, which aims to create an integrated strategy to combat air pollution across the 15 nation European Union by 2004.

Many of the existing European Union air quality laws, known as directives, come up for revision by 2004, and the Commission considers that an integrated program is the best way to prepare for this. It is the first of the thematic strategies announced in the Commission's proposal for a 6th Environmental Action Programme.

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Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom (Photo courtesy Swedish Presidency)
"The Clean Air for Europe program shows how we want to work with Member States and all stakeholders in developing a thematic strategy. We proposed a number of such strategies in the 6th Action Programme three months ago and we are making a start now on the first of them," said Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström.

The program will provide the framework within which new air quality standards and national emission ceilings will be set. It will focus especially on particulate matter and ground level ozone, which have been identified as the air pollutants of greatest concern - as distinct from climate change and pollution by manufactured chemicals.

Particulate matter is emitted directly into the atmosphere from a variety of combustion related stationary and mobile sources, but particles also form in the atmosphere from gaseous pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur oxides (SOx) which are also emitted by the burning of oil, gas and coal.

Ground level ozone is formed in the atmosphere by the reaction of pollutants such as NOx and VOCs in the presence of sunlight.

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Chemical factory emits air pollutants at Wilton, Teesside, England (Photo courtesy Freefoto.com)
Clean Air for Europe (CAFE) must also address remaining problems relating to acidification brought on by acid rain, eutrophication of waters and damage to buildings, said the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, which is responsible for proposing legislation.

The program will "keep a watchful eye for emerging problems related to currently unregulated pollutants," and pay attention to remaining exceedances of limit values in "hot-spot" areas where emission densities are especially high.

The intention is that CAFE will evolve into an ongoing, cyclical programme, of which 2004 will only be the first milestone.

Commissioner Wallström emphasized, "We have come a long way in reducing air pollution, but we have not yet achieved our final objective, that is to make sure that everybody in Europe, even those who are particularly vulnerable to bad air, can breathe freely without being concerned about their health. Clean Air for Europe should provide us the means for attaining this objective."

The output of the Clean Air for Europe plan will be a thematic strategy to be adopted in 2004. This strategy will contain:

The Clean Air for Europe program will prepare provide a structure that allows scientific and technical information to be collected and packaged in a way that is useful for policy makers. Evidence on the effects of air pollution, emission inventories and projections, and cost effectiveness studies for potential abatement measures will be gathered.

The program will provide a framework of support for the implementation of existing legislation and evaluation of its effectiveness in reducing air pollution.

"Through the development and use of indicators and improved accessibility of data it will provide a concrete focus for the sectoral integration strategies and a better means of communication with the general public," Wallstrom said.

The Clean Air for Europe will cooperate closely with other international programs involved in the fight against air pollution, particularly the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe's Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.

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Air pollution hangs over the city of Bruges, Belgium. (Photo courtesy Freefoto.com)
"Transparency, stakeholder involvement and cost effectiveness will continue to be guiding principles for EU air quality policy," stressed Commissioner Wallstrom.

Particulate matter and ozone have been identified as headline priorities because of their effect on human health and the environment, the scientific complexities and uncertainties associated with them, and the inadequacy of currently agreed measures to tackle them successfully.

There is a growing body of evidence showing that even small concentrations of tiny dust particles adversely effect human health, causing premature deaths and reducing quality of life by aggravating respiratory conditions such as asthma, the Commission says. And while ozone in the upper atmosphere provides an essential screen against the sun's most harmful rays, at ground level it is another lung irritant causing many of the same health effects as particulate matter as well as attacking vegetation, forests and buildings.

Since the precise mechanisms by which particles attack human health are still not known, it is unclear which size and type of particles are the most dangerous.

For both particulate and ozone there are complexities related to the formation, reactivity and transport of the pollutant in the atmosphere, making accurate forecasting difficult. But for both pollutants, the Commission says, it seems clear that currently agreed measures will not be sufficient to bring concentrations down to a safe level.

European Union air quality policy up to now has consisted of four strands:

  1. the adoption of a series of directives setting binding limit and target values for ambient air quality

  2. the setting of national emission ceilings for certain pollutants in a directive that is in the process of final adoption in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament

  3. a series of ever stricter vehicle emission and fuel quality standards in connection with the Auto Oil programs

  4. emissions standards for other sectors including limit values for large combustion plants, incinerators and solvent-using industries, and the general requirement to use best available techniques for the operation of the large industrial installations.

Recent studies, such as the ones carried out under the Auto-Oil II Programme finalized last year, have revealed the considerable success that air quality policy has already had in reducing emissions to the benefit of human health and the environment, but more needs to be done, Wallstrom says. The new program aims to integrate the work being done at several levels in an over-arching strategy.