European Parliament votes for tougher ozone controls

A proposal committing to reduce smog levels to UN recommended levels and providing better information to the public about problems of air pollution locally has received all-party support in the European Parliament’s plenary session.

Parliament supported toughening up of the proposed new directive, introduced for its second reading by British Liberal Democrat Chris Davies, after slightly rewording a common position agreed with the Council of Ministers after the document failed to achieve a required level of support in its first reading more than one year ago (see related story). The second reading victory, calling on EU governments to reduce smog levels by 2010 to close to those recommended by the World Health Organisation, means that MEPs now have the right to negotiate a final agreement with environment ministers on equal terms.

The assembly backed Davies in calling for the maximum number of days on which ambient ozone levels can exceed World Health Organisation recommended levels of 120 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) by 2020 to be set at 20 days, instead of 25 laid down by the Council, and in demanding that the 2010 deadline for achieving this be made binding “save where physically impossible”.

This rider was inserted to replace the weaker call to achieve the limits “as far as possible”, and was only inserted at all to placate Mediterranean countries unable to meet the decline as their meteorological conditions make frequent, high ozone concentrations more likely. To ensure that the directive is enforced and going further than the common position, MEPs want to expose Member States that are failing to improve their air quality by requiring them to publish reports that state when and why target values for human health are exceeded and allow their different performances to be compared taking into account different climatic conditions.

Action likely to be taken by governments and the EU will include more pressure on vehicle manufacturers to reduce emissions, and steps to prevent petrol fumes escaping from filling stations.

Davies had proposed the controls in response to a growing problem of asthma, with as many as one in seven British children now experiencing occasional or severe problems. “More than 50% of the ozone problems experienced in Britain are caused by pollution blown in from elsewhere in Europe,” Davies said. “Few examples illustrate better the need for action to be taken at an EU level if we are to improve air quality for all. By securing all-party support in the European Parliament we can now negotiate with ministers from a position of strength. We won’t get everything we want, but the package which will finally be agreed will be much more ambitious than when it was first considered.”

EC Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström said that she supported the principle behind the amendments strengthening the legislation on target values, long-term objectives, short-term action plans and disseminating information. However, she was opposed to the amendment reducing the maximum number of days’ exposure to ozone to 20 days and could not accept the amendment on involving candidate countries on the grounds that this was outside the scope of the legislation.

The federation of NGOs, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), welcomed Davies’ amendments as “a clearer statement of the EU’s commitment to attain EU’s air quality standards, and a stronger push for Member States’ efforts to attain those standards”.

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