Ministers agree on climate, vehicle and solvent emissions

Agreements on a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2005, on new controls on vehicle emissions and fuel quality, and on a Directive on solvent emissions from industry were the main successes of the EC Environment Council on 19-20 June. Ministers also agreed on how policy on voluntary environmental agreements and on implementation and enforcement of EC laws should be taken forward, and opened negotiations on a new Directive on water resources.

The meeting brought the Dutch Presidency of the Council to a generally successful conclusion. It was dominated by talks which ended in a breakthrough on two Directives which will set tighter emission standards for vehicles and controls on the content of vehicle fuels from 2000 (see pp 43-44 ).

  • Greenhouse gases: The main challenge facing the Council was to agree an overall EC target for curbing emissions of the three main greenhouses gases by 2005.

    Ministers had already agreed in March that the EC should reduce emissions of the "basket" of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, weighted by their global warming potentials, by 15% from 1990 levels by 2010. Targets set for individual Member States under a "burden sharing" deal agreed in March will take the EC to only a 10% reduction by 2010, and further work on burden sharing and additional EC policies to close the gap will be undertaken in the run-up to and after December's meeting in Kyoto, Japan, at which emission reduction targets are due to be incorporated in a protocol to the UN Convention on Climate Change (ENDS Report 266, pp 47-48 ).

    A target for 2005 was essential to the EC's credibility in the Kyoto talks. Germany, Austria, Denmark and Luxembourg held out till a late stage for a 10% reduction in emissions of the three gases by 2005, but the figure finally settled on was a 7.5% cut. Burden-sharing arrangements for this target will be agreed after the Kyoto meeting.

    Neither of the EC's targets is unconditional - both will form part of its negotiating position in Kyoto, and a poor outcome of that meeting could yet see pressure for them to be relaxed. However, the UK's position is somewhat different. Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons on his return from the G8 summit in Denver that the Government's promise to reduce the UK's emissions of carbon dioxide alone by 20% by 2010 from the 1990 level "is not a conditional target."

    The clarification of the EC's negotiating position for Kyoto helped Mr Blair and other EC leaders to press the USA at the UN "Earth Summit II" in New York later in June to come forward with its own targets. The Clinton administration, while understanding that the Kyoto conference will fail unless the USA comes on board, is being held back by Republican hostility and intense pressure from the domestic fossil fuel lobby. It appears unlikely to put forward a target until the conference itself, and even then there is likely to be a large gap between the US and EC positions.

    Meanwhile, a better indication of what a 15% reduction target for 2010 will imply for emitting sectors within the EC should emerge in October, when a final report on "common and co-ordinated policies and measures" is due to be submitted to Environment Ministers by an official group.

    The European Commission has promised to set out its own thinking on future EC policy on climate change in a paper later this year. In June, Environment Ministers also invited it to take forward last year's proposal for an action plan to curb methane emissions from the coal, oil and gas sectors, landfills and the livestock industry (ENDS Report 262, pp 38-39 ).

    The Council also "noted with concern" recent proposals by a US company to commercialise self-chilling drinks cans in which one possible cooling agent, HFC-134a, has a global warming potential 1,300 times greater than carbon dioxide (ENDS Report 268, pp 31-32 ). The Commission was asked to bring forward proposals for action. European producers of HFC-134a chipped in by calling for a voluntary agreement to "avoid" use of the chemical in chill-cans.

  • Solvents: The Commission began work on a Directive to reduce solvent emissions from industry more than five years ago. The text went through numerous drafts (ENDS Report 255, pp 39-40 ) before emerging as a formal proposal last November1 - and Ministers caused some surprise by reaching political agreement on the proposal in June.

    The Directive will apply to some 400,000 businesses across the EC. By 2007, the Commission expects it to reduce VOC emissions from 20 types of installation and industrial process by around two-thirds - or 57% once economic growth is factored in.

    Annual implementation costs of ECU4 billion (£2.7 billion) are projected by the Commission, with the surface cleaning and new car coating industries bearing the highest costs. However, it sees "few if any negative effects on the competitive position of businesses," and points to the "urgent need" to tackle low-level ozone pollution, formed by the action of sunlight on VOCs and nitrogen oxides.

    The Commission's proposal contained a number of options for meeting the Directive's objectives. One would be for firms to use abatement plant to meet a complex set of sector-specific emission limits for point sources and fugitive releases. Alternatively, they could opt to achieve an equivalent cut in emissions by implementing a "reduction scheme" - designed to allow the use of low-solvent or solvent-free formulations.

    However, in a nod to subsidiarity, the proposal also allowed Member States to meet the same overall emission reduction via a national plan, tailored to their own industry profiles. Any such plan would have to be approved by the Commission, and feature binding interim targets.

    Germany opposed the national plan concept, favouring uniform EC-wide emission limits. However, Ministers eventually agreed to retain the flexibility offered by national plans, but to limit their scope to existing installations. New plant will have to meet the emission limits set by the Directive. Ministers also decided to exclude the surface cleaning and dry cleaning sectors from national plans because of their use of hazardous solvents.

    The Council also agreed two significant changes to the scope of and standards set by the Directive.

    Firstly, vehicle respraying shops consuming less than one tonne of solvent annually will be excluded. However, southern Member States remain concerned about the need to regulate very large numbers of small paint shops. Studies have shown that low-solvent techniques in this sector are relatively cheap, and can even offer a rapid pay-back. Ministers therefore asked the Commission to draw up a product-based Directive setting limits on the VOC content of respray paints.

    Secondly, controls on primary pharmaceuticals processes were eased. The sector was given greater scope to use the "reduction scheme" approach, and a tighter definition of the processes covered was agreed. The sector had claimed that the Commission's proposal would have entailed excessive costs, and France and the UK initially argued that it should be excluded from the Directive altogether.

    Finally, Ministers agreed to widen the "investment protection" arrangements proposed by the Commission. Certain operators who have recently invested in abatement equipment will be allowed to exceed the emission limits for 12 years after the Directive comes into force.

    The proposals are likely to have less impact in the UK than many other Member States. Most sectors are already covered by local air pollution control (LAAPC) - the main exceptions being dry cleaning and smaller vehicle refinishers. Last year, the Department of the Environment moved to align the compliance approach under LAPC more closely with the emerging EC proposal (ENDS Report 259, pp 23-25 ).

    Some sectors of UK industry have complained that the solvent consumption thresholds and emission limits in the Directive are less stringent than under LAPC. Moreover, the UK upgrading deadline for existing processes is typically nine years earlier than the Directive's 2007 deadline.

  • Water resources: Ministers held their first discussion of the draft framework Directive on water resources, issued by the Commission earlier this year. The proposal covers both water quality and water quantity issues, but its central requirement is that "good" quality is achieved in most surface freshwaters and groundwaters by 2010 (ENDS Report 266, 41-44 ).

    Ministers held an open debate on the proposal, and voiced support for its principles and general objectives. However, the debate - described by one official as "a public outbreak of good humour" - gave little indication of the difficult negotiations ahead.

    Three major issues, as well as a host of details, remain to be resolved. One of the big issues is that the proposal does not itself define "good" chemical or biological quality, but would leave this to be settled by national officials at a later date. This is so central to the Directive's potential cost implications that Member States would be signing an open cheque if the concept was left undefined.

    Secondly, the proposal that most waters should be upgraded to "good" quality by a uniform deadline of 2010 is likely to be unpalatable to many Member States. It is alien to a cornerstone of UK water pollution policy, where varying quality objectives are set for particular stretches of water according to their uses - though the new Government has yet to take a view of how strongly to stick with this. In any event, Member States are likely to demand greater flexibility than a single deadline for reaching one quality goal.

    Thirdly, the proposal has put forward at EC level for the first time the idea that approaches to water pollution control based on environmental quality objectives and technology-based discharge limits have broad equivalence. The conflict between the two was one of the central doctrinal disputes in EC environmental policy during the 1980s, and Germany and Austria have already signalled that they will resist what they regard as downgrading of the discharge limit approach.

    Little detailed discussion of the draft Directive has yet taken place, and there is every likelihood that it will not be agreed until well into 1998 at best.

  • Ozone depletion: The decision facing Ministers was to agree an EC negotiating position for the next meeting of parties to the global Montreal Protocol on protection of the ozone layer in mid-September. The main issues concerned phase-out schedules for methyl bromide and HCFCs.

    On methyl bromide, a crop and soil fumigant, the Protocol currently requires consumption by developed countries to be cut by 25% from 1991 levels by 2001 and 50% by 2005 with a phase-out in 2010, with possible exemptions for "critical" agricultural uses. The EC has gone a little further, with a 25% cut due in 1998.

    The six "greener" Member States - the three Nordic countries plus Austria, Germany and the Netherlands - pressed for the phase-out date to be advanced to 2001, but met with resistance from France and the UK - looking for 2005 - and Italy, which wanted a deadline of 2008. The 2005 proposal was eventually agreed, with a 50% reduction in 2001.

    On HCFCs, used mainly as CFC substitutes in refrigeration and foam blowing, the Protocol imposes a cap at 2.8% of 1989 levels of CFC consumption in 1996, expressed in terms of the ozone depleting capacity of the two groups of chemicals, together with a phase-out schedule culminating in a ban in 2030. The EC has a tighter consumption cap of 2% applicable in 1995, and a more rapid phase-out schedule ending in a ban in 2015, and Ministers agreed to press for these requirements to be incorporated in the revised Protocol.

  • Voluntary agreements: Ministers gave a broad endorsement to last year's Commission proposals on the use of voluntary environmental agreements at both national and EC level (ENDS Report 264, p 39 ), but asked it to carry out further work before they are applied.

    On voluntary agreements at national level, Ministers resolved that their use in implementing EC Directives "can be broadened", but pointed out that there is also a need for legal certainty in implementing Directives and to ensure that the rights and obligations of individuals arising from EC law must not be prejudiced by such agreements. The Commission has been asked to clarify, in consultation with Member States, how voluntary agreements could be used for this purpose.

    At EC level, both the Council and European Parliament are wary of ceding authority to the Commission to negotiate agreements with industry. Both will be watching closely how its current discussions on an agreement on carbon dioxide emissions from cars proceed.

    This caution is reflected in the Environment Council's conclusions, which note that, "subject to further consideration", environmental agreements at EC level should be negotiated "in accordance with procedures to be agreed." The Commission has been asked to carry out further work on this issue.

  • Implementation and enforcement: In a Communication issued last October, the Commission set out several ideas for improving both the transposition of EC legislation into national laws and its application in practice. It stepped back from proposing any legislation, but suggested that EC guidelines could be issued on the work of national inspectorates, on how Member States should handle public complaints that EC laws were being infringed, and on easing access to the courts for third parties to allow judicial review of regulators' decisions (ENDS Report 261, pp 40-41 ).

    On inspections, Ministers invited the Commission to propose minimum criteria and/or guidelines for national inspectorates and ways in which their application in practice could be monitored by Member States.

    Ministers also agreed to enhance the status of IMPEL, the informal network of national environmental inspectorates. It has been invited to make a practitioners' input by advising on general questions of implementation and enforcement, and specifically on new proposals for EC legislation. IMPEL has also been asked to consider whether its mandate should be expanded beyond its current role of exchanging technical and practical experience among inspectorates. Ministers accepted that the network will require a secretariat and financial support for its expanded role.

    On the Commission's other two proposals, Ministers were more guarded. Instead of preparing guidelines, it has been asked to prepare a report on existing national administrative and judicial mechanisms for handling public complaints about breaches of environmental law, including access to justice. Once the report is complete, the Commission may then "consider the need" for guidelines in these two areas.

    Ministers also signalled their intention to keep a closer eye on implementation issues, though this was not the first time they have done so. The Commission has been asked to submit an annual report on the transposition and practical application of EC environmental laws by Member States and on IMPEL's concrete achievements. And the Council promised to "regularly examine" the state of implementation and enforcement.

    Back up the regulatory chain, Ministers asked the Commission to improve the "coherence" of EC laws by using framework Directives and consolidating existing rules, as has been done with the draft Directive on water resources. It was also invited to consider including in future environmental Directives a requirement on Member States to provide for "appropriately dissuasive sanctions" for non-compliance in their implementing legislation.

    Two items of legislation were passed on to the new Presidency, Luxembourg, for possible adoption of a common position by December. These are the proposals to amend the 1980 Directive on drinking water quality and for a new Directive on landfill. On the latter, Ministers emphasised that "of key importance is the objective of creating a level playing-field for the cost of disposal which consequently will prevent the unnecessary transport of waste."

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