Official Journal of the European Union

C 195/84

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe

(COM(2005) 447 final — 2005/0183 COD)

(2006/C 195/22)

On 2 December 2005 the Council decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 175 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the abovementioned proposal.

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on this subject, adopted its opinion on 26 April 2006. The rapporteur was Mr Buffetaut.

At its 427th plenary session, held on 17 and 18 May 2006 (meeting of 17 May), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 72 votes to five with nine abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations


The EESC can only endorse the overarching objectives of the thematic strategy on air pollution and the proposed directive, which is its legislative expression.


As regards the thematic strategy, which cannot be looked at in isolation from the legislative proposal, as is clearly indicated in section 4.1.1 of the strategy:

the Committee fully endorses the desire to mainstream air quality objectives into other Community policies;

urges the Commission to review the energy scenarios generated by the PRIMES model, which seem to contain inaccuracies, which will probably have the effect of altering the baseline scenario for the Clean Air for Europe (CAFE) programme.


As regards the proposed directive:

fully supports the intention of simplifying, clarifying and codifying air quality legislation;

endorses the intention of ensuring effective implementation by Member States of existing legislative provisions;

proposes that the dates set for complying with the obligations laid down in the directive be postponed from 2010 to 2015 for the concentration caps for PM2.5 and from 2015 to 2020 for the reduction in human exposure in view of the time required for the successful completion of the legislative process and the establishment of measuring stations in the Member States, and the cost of the necessary investment;

believes that, before fixing binding ceilings, it would have been useful to provide for a transition period during which Member States would have been required to move towards ‘target’ concentration values;

requests that natural fine particulate matter be excluded from the scope of the directive.

2.   Introduction


The thematic strategy and the proposed directive are part of the Sixth Environment Action Programme (6th EAP published on 10 September 2002 (1)) and the 2001 Clean Air for Europe (CAFE) programme. The 6th EAP set the ambitious objective of ‘achieving levels of air quality that do not give rise to significant negative impacts on and risks to human health and the environment’.

Section 4.1.1 of the strategy states that ‘A legislative proposal is attached to this Strategy …’. It is therefore clear that the two texts are linked and that in order to take a position on the proposed directive it is necessary to examine the strategy, which, in a way, constitutes a general framework and defines the Commission's strategic objectives with regard to air quality.

2.2   A thematic strategy


The proposed thematic strategy establishes interim objectives for air pollution. It recommends that existing legislation be modernised, with a greater focus on the most harmful pollutants, and that more be done to incorporate environmental concerns into other policies and programmes.


However, despite the progress made in reducing emissions of the main air pollutants, even with the full implementation of existing laws it will not be possible to resolve all environmental and health problems by 2020 unless further action is taken.


The Commission therefore proposes the following:

the streamlining of existing provisions and the merging of the 1996 Framework Directive, the First, Second and Third Daughter Directives (1999, 2000 and 2003) and the 1997 Decision on the exchange of information. The Fourth Daughter Directive of 2004 would be incorporated at a later stage through codification;

the introduction of new standards for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air;

the revision of the 2002 National Emission Ceilings Directive (NECD).

These measures are designed to meet the need to simplify and clarify legislation and thus promote better application.


The other strand of the strategy consists of better mainstreaming of air quality concerns into other EU policies: energy; small combustion plants; inland, air and maritime transport; agriculture; and structural funds.


The strategy will be reviewed in 2010 and the results incorporated in the final evaluation of the 6th EAP.

3.   Proposal for a Directive on ambient air and cleaner air for Europe


The proposal seeks to establish a practical legal framework for the strategy by merging the five legal instruments mentioned above into a single directive.


Chapter III on air quality management contains the most important legislative changes. The Commission does not propose to modify the existing air quality limit values but rather to strengthen existing provisions so that Member States will be obliged to prepare and implement plans and programmes to remove non-compliance.


The other key change concerns fine particles (PM2.5), which are more hazardous than larger ones. A new approach to control PM2.5 is therefore required to complement the existing controls on PM10.


The Commission proposes to establish a concentration cap for PM2.5 in ambient air to prevent unduly high risks to the population, to be attained by 2010. This would be coupled with a non-binding target to reduce human exposure generally to PM2.5 between 2010 and 2020 in each Member State.


Chapter V requires Member States to ensure that the public and organisations and associations with an interest in the issue of ambient air quality are kept informed so as to comply with the requirements of the Aarhus Convention. In addition, Member States are, of course, required to provide the Commission with all necessary information. To facilitate the transmission of this information, the Commission proposes to introduce a system of electronic reporting based on a shared information system within the INSPIRE framework.


In order to ensure that the information collected is sufficiently representative and comparable, it is proposed that standardised measurement techniques and common criteria for the number and location of measuring stations be used for the assessment of ambient air quality.

4.   General comments

A)   Thematic strategy


The EESC endorses the general objectives of the strategy and the proposed directive. However, although the objectives are commendable, the real issues here are cost-effectiveness, the feasibility of the proposed measures — relatively straightforward in the case of point sources but far more complicated in the case of diffuse sources — and their real impact, both economically and in terms of improving air quality.


The Commission estimates that attaining these objectives could cost approximately EUR 7.1 billion per annum, which would be in addition to the amount already spent on combating air pollution (approximately EUR 60 billion a year), but would deliver health benefits totalling EUR 42 billion per annum. Thus the macroeconomic impact would be broadly positive. However, day-to-day economic realities are more about microeconomic concerns. The Commission nevertheless estimates that, even if all available techniques were used, the benefits would outweigh the costs. The difficulty here is that, while it is relatively easy to estimate the costs, it is much harder to assess the expected benefits; moreover the methods of calculating the savings in public health expenditure do not seem very clear. Nonetheless, the Commission stresses that the cost of US regulation is higher than that which would result from European regulation.


The plan to simplify, clarify and codify legislation is to be welcomed. The complexity and vagueness of some of the legal provisions inevitably entails differences in application, distortions of competition and the impossibility of acquiring a true picture of air quality in Europe.


Therefore the proposed legislative approach should be supported.


However, it is to be regretted that the Commission does not consider the role that local authorities and, not least, towns and cities should play in the field of transport (promotion of alternative modes of transport, public transport, deflection of heavy traffic, etc.). In fact, local authorities, especially municipalities, play a crucial role in the practical implementation of provisions adopted at European level, particularly as regards measures.


In the same vein, it would be advisable to stress the role which environmental NGOs, specialised bodies in the health and social field and organised civil society more widely can play in raising awareness of the issues at stake for public health and health at work.


Finally, as regards protection of ecosystems, progress has already been made in relation to oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide and ammonia. Better application and simplification of legislation should make it possible to improve results still further.

B)   Proposed directive


The desire to control the level of fine particles in the air is understandable given their impact on human health. However, fixing limit values came up against a theoretical difficulty in that for some particles the WHO was unable to establish a health protection threshold (2). Moreover, major uncertainties exist concerning the measurement of PM concentrations and the chemical composition of particles that make PM harmful to health, to a greater or lesser extent, which cannot be determined with the techniques currently in use.


This therefore raises the question as to whether it might not have been better to establish ‘target’ values instead of limit values. Moreover, the proposed deadline (2010) seems rather short as the legislative procedure only started at the end of 2005, which, given the slowness of the legislative process, could mean that Member States have very little time to comply.

5.   Specific comments

5.1   The thematic strategy


The EESC welcomes the wide-ranging consultation of stakeholders conducted by the European Commission and fully endorses the desire to mainstream air quality objectives in other Community policies. However, owing to time constraints, the work was carried out with great haste and it was not possible to perform all of the necessary data checks. This applies particularly to the strategic scenarios used.


The scenarios, which were generated by the PRIMES model, contain a number of inaccuracies regarding growth forecasts, the penetration of gas in comparison with coal, and the imbalance between imports and exports of electricity between Member States.


In fact, recognising this, the European Commission requested the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) to hold bilateral consultations with all the Member States between April and September 2005 with a view, inter alia, to improving the energy scenarios in connection with the revision of the Directive on National Emission Ceilings, which is just starting.


A major updating of the PRIMES energy scenarios is now under way. The most important changes are as follows:

less market penetration by gas and a larger share for coal;

a better balance between Member States in terms of electricity imports and exports;

a larger share for nuclear-generated electricity;

revised forecasts for fuel costs and economic growth.


Therefore the CAFE energy scenarios should be revised, which would have the effect of altering the CAFE baseline scenario and hence the stated target levels.


In addition, it would be advisable to ensure consistency between this strategy and other EU policies. For example, although domestic wood combustion results in the emission of PM2.5 particles, the Commission encourages the use of wood as an alternative energy source, which would require the implementation of flue gas cleaning techniques. Coal can be cited as another example.


That said, the thematic strategy has the merit that it takes into account sectors that are often neglected, such as agriculture and shipping. It is nonetheless surprising that it does not address the question of air transport with regard to emissions during take-off and landing. However, formidable political difficulties are likely to arise in implementing the strategy: for instance, cutting emissions of SO2 and NOx from ships will require long and arduous international negotiations. Moreover, the difficulties in achieving target levels in some sectors (e.g. nitrogen and ammonia emissions in agriculture) should not lead to added pressure on sources that are easier to identify such as industrial sites.

5.2   The proposed directive


The EESC supports the simplification of the existing provisions and the merger of the 1996 Framework Directive with the First, Second and Third Daughter Directives and the Decision on the exchange of information. A plethora of disparate laws undermines their effective application and the replacement of five separate pieces of legislation by a single directive is a useful initiative.


The Committee also endorses the plan to use standardised measurement techniques and common criteria for the number and location of measuring stations (Chapter II). It notes, however, that some local authorities are concerned about the cost of installing these measurement systems.


Similarly, the EESC supports the European Commission's proposal not to modify the existing air quality limit values but to strengthen existing provisions so that Member States will be obliged to prepare and implement plans and programmes to remove non-compliances (Article 13). Effective application of existing standards is a top priority which should bring major benefits in terms of air quality and protection of human health.


The EESC would stress that the key point of the proposal is the introduction of a ceiling for fine particles matter (PM2.5) in the air, to be attained by 2010, coupled with a number of non-binding targets to reduce human exposure to fine particles between 2010 and 2020 (-20 %).


The Committee would point out that available data on fine particles and their effects are limited and uncertain. The WHO itself acknowledges that it is impossible to establish a relevant threshold for health protection and the Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risk acknowledges that there is, at present, a lack of knowledge on fine particles and their effects on health in the long term.


The EESC considers it better initially to establish target values rather than a concentration cap. Otherwise, the Committee fears that the deadlines set by the Commission will be too tight insofar as the legislative procedure did not start until the end of 2005. Thus there would be a likelihood that Member States would have only very little time to comply, especially as some of them do not even meet the existing standards, in part because they have delayed implementing them. The Committee also points out that it is difficult for smaller Member States to comply with concentration caps, as they are at a disadvantage given the smaller area over which air pollution is distributed. The Committee therefore proposes that target values be set rather than concentration caps. The proposed standards would require an enormous effort from Member States and/or local authorities to set up measuring stations, which would take time and necessitate major investment. PM10 are well measured and measurable and, moreover, tend to be deposited quickly. These measurement results should nonetheless be evaluated and assessed to establish whether they can be complied with in the Member States. PM2.5 are extremely difficult to measure and very volatile. Thus they are easily transported in the atmosphere and are transboundary pollutants. In addition, there are natural fine particulates, for example sea salt, which it would be logical not to take into account.


Furthermore, the measurement of PM2.5 is still not harmonised in Europe. The First Daughter Directive recommends the use of a gravimetric reference method for the measurement of PM. As this is a long and complicated method, the directive also allows the use of alternative measurement methods, on condition that they are really equivalent to those published by the Commission. In practice, these methods show a systematic deviation from the reference method and Member States use different correction coefficients or even no coefficient at all. One can question whether it is reasonable to adopt legally binding limit values in such a short time span in the light of these uncertainties in measurement methods.


Finally, the EESC notes that the cost-effectiveness of the proposed measures is hard to assess inasmuch as that for some measures its difficult to estimate the public health benefits with any precision. There is therefore a danger that the marginal cost of the proposed measures will be high but that the real benefit they deliver is small, raising the question of expediency in making resource allocation decisions.

Brussels, 17 May 2006

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Anne-Marie SIGMUND

(1)  OJ L 242 of 10.9.2002.

(2)  As regards human exposure to PM2.5 particles, the WHO has recently proposed a ceiling of 10 μg/m3.