Framework rules on air quality promised by end of year

Proposals for a new EC framework Directive on air quality will be ready by the end of this year, a European Commission official told the National Society for Clean Air's annual conference on 7 October. A key dispute over the legislation is likely to be whether it should prohibit any deterioration in existing levels of air quality.

Four Directives on air quality have been adopted at EC level to date. Three of these - dealing with smoke and sulphur dioxide, lead and nitrogen dioxide - contain mandatory air quality standards. The fourth, on ozone, only lays down monitoring requirements and requires Member States to inform the public when ozone concentrations are high.

At the time the ozone Directive was proposed it was generally believed that it would be the last of its kind. But the Commission changed its mind and promised a series of actions on air quality in the EC's fifth Environment Action Programme two years ago.

The new air quality Directive will provide a framework for the promised measures. It is to be followed by a series of "daughter" Directives dealing with individual pollutants.

The framework Directive will in part be designed to overcome some of the shortcomings in the implementation of the existing Directives, the NSCA conference was told by Kathleen Cameron, an official in the Commission's Environment Directorate. These include:

  • Very large variations in the numbers of monitoring sites installed by different Member States.

  • The failure of some Member States to use the monitoring methods prescribed at EC level, or even methods giving comparable results.

  • Reporting of air quality data to the Commission was "often incomplete, and almost always late".

  • Submission of air quality improvement plans to Brussels was likewise patchy, and those plans submitted generally failed to meet the criteria laid down in the Directives.

    An initial draft of the new framework Directive emerged from the Commission this spring (ENDS Report 219, pp 38-39 ). Several of the principles outlined in this draft appear still to be in the reckoning.

    The framework Directive, said Ms Cameron, will lay down in general terms a harmonised approach to the assessment of air quality, providing a basis for deciding whether action to reduce air pollution needs to be taken at local, national or Community level. Member States will be required to classify areas of their territory according to whether they are likely to be in breach of the air quality standards laid down in daughter Directives for specific pollutants.

    One innovation will be that Member States will be required to submit air quality classification maps to Brussels. These will be used by the Commission to publish an annual map of air quality throughout the Community, in much the same way as is currently done for bathing water quality.

    Another departure from the existing Directives will be that Member States will not be obliged to monitor air quality solely at fixed points. This addresses a criticism levelled repeatedly at the UK, which has very few fixed monitoring stations for nitrogen dioxide but claims that no more are needed because a comprehensive evaluation of NO2 levels carried out at a large number of temporary monitoring sites using simple equipment has shown that the EC air quality limit values for NO2 are unlikely to be exceeded elsewhere. Criteria governing air quality assessment methods of this kind will be laid down in the framework Directive, but with the specific monitoring techniques allowed for individual pollutants being prescribed in daughter Directives.

    The first group of daughter Directives will revise the four existing Directives, according to Ms Cameron. The second will cover an agreed list of pollutants - probably cadmium, carbon monoxide, benzene and some others. The need to set air quality standards at EC level for specific pollutants will be guided by the subsidiarity doctrine, so that only those causing transboundary pollution or which are a problem in most Member States will be regulated in this way.

    The standards themselves are likely to be "quite stringent", she warned, since the goal will be to provide a "high degree of protection for man and the environment." The standards in the existing Directives were intended to provide protection only for humans, and her comments suggest that considerably tighter values may be proposed for sulphur and nitrogen oxides and ozone in particular. The basis of the standards set in daughter Directives will be World Health Organization guidelines, which are exceeded with some regularity in the UK.

    A crucial issue in the new set-up will be how exceedances of EC standards are to be handled. In its initial draft, the Commission suggested that limit and/or guide values should be set for 14 "priority" pollutants. Where limit values were exceeded, Member States would have to develop programmes to bring pollution levels below them within five years. Where concentrations of a pollutant were between the limit and guide values, Member States would initially have to ensure no increase in its concentration, and then take steps to bring it below the guide value within a specified deadline. The draft also provided that where concentrations of a pollutant were below a guide value they should be maintained other than in "exceptional" cases.

    This proposal was clearly not without its practical and logical difficulties, but it was not clear from Ms Cameron's presentation whether the Commission has since refined its thinking. She did say, however, that Member States would be allowed a "decreasing temporary margin of exceedance" of EC standards in areas which are currently relatively highly polluted.

    What she did hint at, however, was a dispute among Member States on whether existing standards of air quality should be maintained. In discussions among national officials, she said, some had supported the idea of having an obligation on Member States not to allow any increase in current pollution levels. Others, though, feel that this would stifle development and be economically detrimental. This appears likely to be one of the crucial arguments over the framework Directive when it sees the light of day.

    According to Ms Cameron, discussions on the proposal within the Commission are almost complete, and a formal proposal will be submitted to the Commission by the end of 1993.

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