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Air and health15 July 2015, the Health and Environment Committee Members of the European Parliament (MEPs)  will vote on the “Reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants and amending Directive 2003/35/EC” Rapporteur’s report. ECC is calling on MEPs to back a strong response to air pollution to ease the life of people living with COPD.

(Image: European Environment Agency)

This is an overview of the air quality package, for the readers of this website to better understand its importance on COPD.

 I.  Projected impacts and structure of the package

On 18 December 2013, the Commission launched a new policy package on air quality[1]. According to the impact assessment, the Air Package aims to have the following results by 2030: it will save 58,000 people from premature deaths, 123,000 km² of ecosystem, 56,000km² of protected areas and 19,000 km² of forest from acidification. This directive will save between €40-140 billion in healthcare costs and yield an extra €3 billion in economic productivity which is presently lost to absenteeism (the equivalent of 100,000 extra jobs)[2] [3].

The air quality package[4] updates existing legislation and aims to further reduce harmful emissions from industry, traffic, energy plants and agriculture, with a view to reducing their impact on human health and the environment. The package has legislative and non-legislative elements.

The most important element of the package is the revision of National Emission Ceilings Directive (NECD)[5] with stricter national emission ceilings for the six main pollutants, on which ECC will focus, for this briefing. Other elements of the package include:

  • A new Clean Air Programme for Europe[6]
  • The Council decision on the acceptance of the 1999 Protocol[7] on Abate Acidification, Eutrophication and Ground-level Ozone; and
  • A proposal for a new Directive[8] to reduce pollution from medium-sized combustion installations, such as energy plants for street blocks or large buildings, and small industry installations.

II. The Revision of the NEC Directive

The National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive is a critical instrument to reduce air pollution in the European Union (EU). It sets reductions of emissions of a number of pollutants harmful to our health and environment. It limits ‘exports’ and ‘imports’ of air pollution between different EU countries. By doing so, it helps improve ambient air quality locally and protect people’s health and quality of life.

Directive 2001/81/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council set annual national emission ceilings for each Member State to be attained by 2010, covering emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), fine particulate matter (PM2,5),  sulphur dioxide (SO2), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC) and ammonia (NH3). These were aimed at reducing air pollution and its adverse impacts upon public health and the environment across the Union, and also at compliance with the Gothenburg Protocol. The EU will set limits for 2020, 2025 and 2030 on the same pollutants and, for the first time, methane (CH4).

The Commission’s proposal to revise the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive is very welcome but its ambition level does not match the scale of Europe’s air quality problem and the benefits at stake. In particular:

The 2020 targets, known as “Emission Reduction Commitments” (ERCs) have been copy-pasted from the 2012 revised Gothenburg protocol without consideration of possible additional health and environmental benefits for Europeans. The proposed ERCs are expected to be achieved by Member States, in many cases by a wide margin, just by implementing existing legislation. In some cases, the proposed ERCs would actually allow higher emissions in 2020 than is allowed under the old NEC Directive as from 2010.[9]

  • The Commission’s proposal does not require any legally-binding reductions for 2025 and delays action until 2030.
  • The proposed ERCs for 2030 which aim to reduce health impacts by 52% would still leave us far from achieving the World Health Organisation’s recommended levels of air quality. Some 260,000 premature deaths would still occur in 2030, i.e. more than half of today’s death toll.

 III. Current status of negotiations

The new European Commission (starting in November 2014) was considering withdrawing the directive in November 2014 but then backtracked in the face of strong resistance from the EU Parliament and civil society, as there is a strong societal demand for change: 7 out of 10 Europeans are unhappy with the current attempts to reduce emissions and 4 of 5 think the EU should adopt additional measures.[10] The Commission said it will nevertheless amend its proposal at first reading “as a follow up to the Energy and Climate Framework to 2030”. What this means in concrete terms is still unclear, but this Commission is committed to reducing the regulatory burden on Member States and the NEC Directive is considered as “red tape” on business and agriculture.

The Council of Ministers has so far been critical of the Commission’s proposal, with many saying that the emission limits are too strict. They are likely to want to water down the Commission proposal significantly although Member States at this point are still considering their positions. Draft plans to set sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emission limits for medium-sized combustion plants, such as electricity generators or heating systems for domestic, residential or industrial use, were informally agreed by the Members of the European Parliament and the Latvian Presidency of the Council on Tuesday 23th of June 2015.[11] EU Member states will have to assess whether to introduce stricter limits in areas where these emissions breach EU air quality standards. Member States have also signalled that limits to agricultural emissions are too strict and suggested to remove methane entirely from the Directive. But they have not yet come to a common position. It is expected that this will happen by the end of 2015.

The European Parliament is working on the proposal and Rapporteur Julie Girling (EPP, UK) who is the MEP in charge of the Parliament’s work on this draft, put together a report[12] which broadly supports the Commission’s proposal. The Agriculture Committee in the European Parliament has however recently issued its opinion to withdraw the emission limits for both ammonia and methane, de facto exempting the farming sector from the effort needed to improve air quality.

IV.  Why is action needed now?

An EU Environment Council meeting took place on 15 June 2015 when the progress report relating to the NEC Directive was discussed. Despite some relatively good level of support within the European Parliament’s Environment Committee (ENVI), there is still strong opposition from the Council which risk seriously impacting the Commission’s proposal. Most Member States complain about their own emission reductions and want to see relaxed obligations.

Next steps in the legislative process will be the vote in the ENVI committee in European Parliament on Wednesday 15th of July 2015. The final vote in plenary session in Strasbourg would be in September or October 2015. In the meantime, health and environmental non-governmental organisations have adopt a position and present their recommendations.

NGOs’ advocacy to turn this legislation into reality and for it to be implemented fully at EU level is essential. European citizens’ perception of the air quality legislation currently is so negative, NGOs could count on their support for the cause in order to apply real pressure to those in charge. As the NEC revision is the most relevant piece of legislation on the current Commission’s political agenda for addressing COPD, it is an opportunity for the European COPD community to join forces and act upon it, bringing views of all concerned with COPD into the debate.

 More information:




[3] Fact sheet:






[9] NOx emissions from Austria and Spain, NMVOC emissions from Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal, and NH3 emissions from Germany and Spain. Austria’s NOx emissions for 2020 under the proposal are 40% higher than the 103,000 tons maximum permitted for 2010 under the existing NEC Directive.





July 13th, 2015 | Published in Uncategorized,