European Union enforces new air pollution limits

The European Union (EU) has today (29 April) approved new air pollution limits, which could save more than 20,000 lives each year by reducing pollution derived from coal-fired power plants.

The UK was amongst Member States that backed stricter limits on toxic pollutants from large combustion plants in the EU. Rules will apply to all of the EU’s coal-fired power stations, including from nations that opposed the vote such as Germany.

More than 125,000 campaigners had signed a European-wide petition calling on the European Council and Member States to “clean up” toxic air. The petition was delivered to Brussels on the morning of the decision, which has to be met by 2021. Campaigners suggested that the decision could save 20,000 deaths lives as a result of improved air quality.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) took part in six years of negotiations leading to the publication of the document. EEB claimed that delays to the ruling had led to €150bn in associated health costs and more than 55,000 premature deaths.

EEB’s policy manager Christian Schaible said: “This is finally some good news on tackling air pollution. Tried-and-tested techniques exist to filter out or reduce harmful fumes yet the decision as to whether to use them is too often left to plant operators, who simply do whatever is cheapest. Today’s decision will now ensure that the dirtiest plants either clean up or close down.” 

UK impact

The European Commission had previously revealed that European air quality laws were being flaunted in more than 130 cities across 23 of the 28 EU member states.

Improved limits, which also apply to peat, oil, gas and offshore rigs among other plants, will be introduced by Member States, who will decide how strict the updated rules are. Investment into new technologies or coal-plant phase-outs – already scheduled in the UK – are on the table as considerations.

Around 280 coal-fired plants in the EU produce nearly 25% of EU-generated electricity, but are also accountable for more than 70% of EU sulphur dioxide emissions and 40% of nitrogen oxide emissions in the industry sector.

“EU coal power plants will now either have to reduce their pollution or close down,” WWF’s senior energy policy officer Darek Urbaniak said. “We call on EU leaders to continually tighten these air pollution standards over time in order to protect our health and our environment. It is about time Europe quits its dirty coal addiction for good and invest in energy efficiency and renewables instead.”

The news from Brussels arrives after the UK Government was ordered by the High Court to publish a new air quality regime by the end of July. Ministers had been given up to 24 April to produce an Air Quality Plan, but applied to delay the publication until the general election was settled.

The expansion of Heathrow Airport has also raised questions as to whether the UK can meet national air quality limits. The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has criticised the UK Government for refusing to commit to air quality targets in relation to the third runway expansion and Brexit.

Matt Mace

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