Air quality directive: a basis for equality?

As the new EU Air Quality Framework Directive sets out to deliver environmental justice and social equity, Richard Maggs asks if this is a move in the right direction

The EU Air Quality Framework Directive (96/62/EC) is the main regulatory regime for assessment and management of ambient air quality across Europe. This directive covers the revision of previously existing legislation and the introduction of new air quality standards for previously unregulated air pollutants, through a series of daughter directives (1999/30/EC, 2000/69/EC, 2002/3/EC, and 2004/107/EC).

Besides setting air quality limit and alert thresholds, the objectives of the daughter directives are to harmonise monitoring strategies, measuring methods, calibration and quality assessment methods. The UK has determined the best approach to determining the overall compliance to the EU directive (supplementing national measures) is through the local air quality management regime which requires local authorities to determine the presence of local 'hot-spots' through modelling and monitoring programmes.

Where such hot-spots arise, the LA is required to declare an air quality management area (AQMA). Having declared an AQMA, the authority is then required to put in place an action plan which aims to reduce contributions from those emission sources identified as the worst offenders.

Currently over 160 AQMAs have been declared across the UK and a unique feature of the current framework is that an AQMA must be declared in all cases where exceedences of the relevant air quality objectives are predicted to occur. This means that an AQMA must be declared even on a single property (where the relevant exposure criteria is fulfilled).

Unequal approach
Stepping aside for one minute from the obvious need to improve the health of residents living within an AQMA, it could be argued that the current regime places a disproportionate burden (when expressed per resident within an AQMA) on resources and finances on those authorities with AQMAs based on only a few residential units.

Proposals in Europe may now change this to an approach that takes into account environmental justice and social equity. Is this a move in the right direction?

The new Ambient Air Quality Directive - resulting from the CAFÉ Thematic Strategy approved in December 2005 - reached political consensus last October and is expected to be approved in the last quarter of this year. The directive aims to streamline existing air quality legislation in Europe into a single statute.

Thus, while adopted limit values are proposed to be retained - maintaining the current 'hot spot identification and improvement' approach - a new approach to the management of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is proposed. What is the key driver for this proposed approach?

Emerging evidence from the World Health Organisation indicates that the PM2.5 fraction of particulate matter is more hazardous to human health than the coarse fraction of PM10. The UK's own expert panel on air quality standards (EPAQS) raises concerns with this evidence and highlights that the results on PM2.5 do not infer that the coarse fraction of PM10 is innocuous.

Managing health impacts
However, the results have raised the issue of how we manage air pollutants for which evidence suggests there is no 'lowest observed threshold' of effect. That is, health impacts affect everyone and not just the most sensitive groups within a population.

The new directive sets to address this through setting of an average exposure indicator (AEI) for PM2.5 which will be based upon measurements in urban background locations in zones and agglomerations throughout the territory of the member state. The AEI will be assessed as a three-year running annual mean concentration averaged over all sampling points.

Thus, the AEI for 2010 shall be the mean of the concentration of the years 2008, 2009 and 2010. The directive sets an exposure reduction target (relative to the AEI of 2010) of 20% reduction to be achieved by 2020. Where an AEI in 2010 falls below 7µg/m3, the exposure reduction target will be zero.

The approach certainly fits with the principle of environmental justice as defined: "The equitable treatment of all people regardless of their race, culture, income and social class in the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental regulations and policies".

However, there has to be a basis for such an approach. In this instance, the no-observed threshold effects of PM2.5 certainly justifies this. Does this mean that we should apply the principle to other pollutants? Probably not given that thresholds of effects can be determined for a number of pollutant species with well-defined health effects.

Reduce emissions within reason
However, in managing air quality, the drive should be to reduce emissions to as low a level as is reasonably practicable to do so - while maintaining the economic and social fabric of society.

The requirement to undertake a strategic environmental assessment/sustainability appraisal of any proposed new policies, plans and programmes also highlights the more integrated approach to air quality management where wider-scale benefits and conflicts with existing policies under the umbrellas of say transport, economy and diversity are identified.

Let's hope that this avoids the mistakes made in the past of managing one aspect of air pollution for it to be replaced in future years with another problem.

It seems like the new approach to air quality management has more social justice contained within it, but it remains to be seen whether such an approach changes the current relationship between AQMAs and deprivation to overcome current inequalities.

Dr Richard Maggs is business director for air quality at Bureau Veritas

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