EEB Conference – Clean Air Everywhere:Blowing the winds of change into European air policy. Session II: Improving People’s Health: what can be done better in 2013? The future of EU air policies and the 7th EAP
Representation of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia to the European Union, Rue Montoyer 47, Brussels
Distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in today’s important and timely event. I believe today’s discussions can help to inform and shape future air policies within the EU, not only looking at the consolidation and strengthening of core ambient air policies that have provided a policy framework over the last decade and more, but taking broader account of related policy areas like climate, energy and wider quality of life issues including spatial planning and integrated transport policy. This wider perspective is important so that the next phase of air policy in Europe can evolve in an integrated and cohesive manner to deliver further human health benefits as well as a range of climate and other benefits to our society more widely.
I’m delighted to be here, in my first formal event as President of the Council of Environment Ministers. It’s very appropriate that this event should be on an issue that I feel very strongly about and to which I have devoted much time and effort over the last year or two at national level in Ireland, and which I will address later. Over the next six months, I hope to have a similar positive influence at EU level and to prepare the ground for the publication in the Autumn of the revision to the Commission’s Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution.
Environmental Priorities of Irish Presidency
Assuming the EU Presidency 8 days ago was a very fitting date, marking the fortieth anniversary of Ireland’s accession in 1973 to what, of course, was then known as the EEC. This is our seventh time taking on this challenge and, over the past four decades, I believe we have acquitted ourselves well in terms of running successful Presidencies. We have been planning for this Presidency for over two years now and are ready to drive forward the environmental agenda across a broad range of policy areas.
We aim to accomplish much in the six months of our Presidency and I’m proud to say that our level of ambition is high, particularly in relation to the extensive portfolio of environmental legislative dossiers that we intend to progress. Of course, we face many challenges in realising our ambitions, but we believe our aims are achievable, and at the end of June, I’m confident that we will have a very credible record of achievement under our belts, and will be able to stand over a progressive, sustainable and green Presidency.
It is perhaps appropriate and to be expected that the Irish Presidency should be seen as a “green” Presidency, but this is not just a veneer. The key overarching focus of the Irish Presidency will be on Jobs and Growth, and there will be a particular emphasis on green and sustainable growth and development as part of the wider aim of placing Europe on a pathway to a low-carbon future. As such, Ireland will be pursuing an ambitious green theme, running throughout its Presidency. Resource efficiency, sustainable development and the advancement of the green economy, with a particular focus on green jobs, will all feature across a range of Council formations. This process will be assisted by way of environmental input into the European Semester, building on the work already done by the Cypriot Presidency.
Furthermore, I’m delighted to be able to announce that double ISO certification for Event Sustainability and Environmental Management Systems standards has been awarded to Dublin Castle, the headquarters for the our Irish Presidency. This is the first time that an EU Presidency, and indeed any political and governmental institution, can display the combination of ISO 20121 and ISO 14001 standards; this underpins our environmental commitments and also sets a powerful precedent for future presidencies.
One of my flagship priorities is the 7th Environment Action Programme, one of the most fundamental pieces of EU environment policy architecture and one that will provide the overarching framework for operationalizing the Europe 2020 Strategy – and in particular, the flagship initiative on resource efficiency. The 7th EAP will be the key driver of environmental and green economy initiatives, and it has the potential to re-shape the next ten years of EU environmental principles and policies. We will be working hard to achieve First Reading Agreement on this strategy and will be relying on many of you here today – fellow Ministers, Commissioners, MEPs, and other stakeholders – to work with us to get this over the line by June.
We also have several legislative priorities to progress relating to climate policy and greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere such as the proposals on CO2 emissions from cars and vans, and on fluorinated gases, as well as of course the extensive international environmental agenda.
We will be busy and will keep you busy over these next six months!
Air Quality across Europe
Listening to all of the speakers here this morning, I think the consensus is striking that the scientific evidence is unambiguous that air pollution, even at low levels, harms our health and the ecosystems on which we rely, and that it has to become a higher priority area for concerted and real action. Air quality has in general improved in recent decades, but scientific understanding has also improved and developed so that we now have to address threats that were not identified or understood in the past. We must ensure that the revision of the Thematic Strategy addresses these emerging threats if we are to ensure that our environment policy remains ‘fit for purpose’ to minimise the risks to human health and the environment and so protect and safeguard our human and natural capital
In addition to direct human health costs, air pollution also has wider societal costs including, for example, through:
- lost productivity in business;
- damage and yield losses to agricultural crops and forests; as well as
- damage to our built heritage from exposure to soot and acidifying pollution with consequent costs for greater protection, repair and upkeep.
In addition, for a range of air pollutants, known as short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon and ground-level ozone, there are also additional costs from their contribution to climate change and global warming. Measures to address these pollutants will deliver a double dividend – in terms of both human health and climate benefits - thus increasing the cost effectiveness of measures to address these pollutants
Health implications of air pollution
The associated health costs of poor air quality – both indoor and outdoor - have been well documented, though are all too often not given full weight in framing environment policies. Such potential future costs need to be considered with the weight they deserve in framing new and improved emission source control measures in the various sectors of the economy.
For many air pollutants, there is now clear evidence that exposure even below mandatory standards causes adverse effects on human health. As Jacqui McGlade alluded to earlier, the EEA’s 2012 Report on Air Quality in Europe identifies that air pollution concentrations are still too high, particularly in urban areas, notwithstanding the efforts and successes we have already achieved and, while there have been significant reductions in pollutant emissions, these haven’t translated directly to improvements in ambient quality levels across the EU.
We mustn’t forget that EU air quality standards provide only for a minimum level of health protection; in many cases, they exceed the World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guideline values for particulate matter and other pollutants, which we know can be harmful even at very low levels. It is necessary therefore to continue to take action to enhance air quality for the protection of public health and the environment, to reduce the very real societal costs, and to promote green industry as we transition to the Green Economy.
To a certain extent, air policy has been a victim of its own success which has perhaps pushed it down the political agenda, at both EU and national levels, and this is something that we have to address and provide for nothing short of a Clean Air Revival. I think it important that we look at air pollution policy in the broader context – not just in isolation but considering the wider benefits by taking account of impacts and synergies with climate, biodiversity, economic productivity and so on in framing new policies and approaches.
Air and climate policy links
There are strong links between air and climate policy. Generally, climate policy has positive synergies with air quality, with the predominant source of air pollution and greenhouse gases being the combustion of fossil fuel for energy. ‘Climate unfriendly’ fuels like coal and peat are also ‘pollution-intensive’ fuels from an air quality perspective, so initiatives to incentivise a shift from such fuels, such as applying a carbon tax - which was recently extended to residential solid fuels in Ireland - will have both air and climate co-benefits.
However, we must also be conscious of potential tensions between the two policy areas, where, for example, the increased use of biomass fuels as a climate measure can increase the emission of air pollutants. This can cause the re-emergence of air quality problems in urban areas where policies successfully introduced decades earlier had addressed solid fuel emission sources, and improved air quality.
I know that the last panel today will be discussing how we can bring air and climate policies closer together – unfortunately, I have a Presidency engagement this evening back in Dublin and will have to leave soon, but my officials will be here to listen and take away key messages for the Irish Presidency to consider and progress. This is an area that I am very interested in and am committed to progressing under my joint remit for both climate and air policy.
National and local initiatives
Air pollution policies also have a strong local and national aspect which can complement EU and international policy developments to take effective actions to improve air quality. Given the diverse set of conditions and pressures across Europe, it is often the case that nationally developed bottom up policies and measures are very effective in reducing pollution and improving our citizens’ quality of life. It is important that EU policy is framed so as to complement and facilitate such local and national level approaches.
In Ireland, we have been successful in addressing the very severe air pollution problems which resulted primarily from the widespread use of ‘smoky’ coal in Dublin city and other urban areas which occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. Over 20 years ago, we introduced a ban on the marketing, sale and distribution of ‘smoky’ coal in Dublin, to restrict the availability of ‘smoky’ coal that was the cause of elevated particulate matter levels and a resultant significant increase in winter mortality across the city’s population. The ban worked very effectively at reducing emissions and improving ambient air quality and delivered a significant reduction in excess winter mortality. The elevated levels of particulate matter resulted in breaches of the European Community air quality standards for black smoke in place at the time, which provided an impetus to introduce the marketing ban: this is a good example of how policy at EU level can complement and facilitate action at national and local level.
Following the success in Dublin, the ban has been subsequently implemented in other cities and towns across the country. While the marketing ban has worked effectively, particularly in the larger cities, enforcement has been a challenge in smaller urban areas. I recently reviewed these regulations to ensure they continued to be ‘fit for purpose’ and updated them so as to adapt them to new settlement patterns and market conditions, to provide for enhanced and more consistent implementation and enforcement. In particular, in addition to the existing ban on marketing, sale and distribution of “smoky” coal, a ban on the use of such coal in relevant areas has also been introduced.
Of course, the border with Northern Ireland presents a challenge for enforcement – as borders do the world over - but I am working positively with my Ministerial counterpart in Northern Ireland to share resources, expertise and experiences. Our aim is to assess whether a collaborative approach would be mutually beneficial to help address the threat posed to air quality from the use of residential solid fuel on the island of Ireland, where solid fuel use, and coal in particular, is more prevalent than in many other regions of the EU.
In terms of further initiatives in the future, perhaps the scope for national bans on the marketing of ‘smoky’ coal might be an option; it would certainly reduce the enforcement burden at national level, but we need to be mindful of the strictures of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (or TFEU) internal market provisions. Perhaps some EU minimum standards for residential solid fuel could be considered; after all, we have minimum EU standards for petrol and diesel under the TFEU internal market provisions which require, for example, a maximum sulphur content of 10 parts per million, while there are no internal market provisions regulating residential coal which might have a sulphur content of 40,000 parts per million!
I cite sulphur by way of an example - sulphur dioxide is no longer a critical pollutant in the EU, although sulphur does play an important role in the formation of secondary particulate matter. However, it might be more appropriate to consider regulation of a parameter such as the ‘smoke emission rate’ which directly relates to emissions of particulate matter, and their health impact.
The issue of residential emissions doesn’t just relate to Ireland, as the EEA identified domestic emission as the main source of particulate matter and ozone - the priority pollutant from a health perspective - across the EU.
International air policy
Recent negotiations in Geneva under the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution concluded revisions updating the Heavy Metals Protocol. I believe that it is time now for the Convention to focus on its role and structures to ensure it continues to deliver the optimal added value in the context of related Multi-lateral Environmental Agreements which have come into being since the Convention was framed in 1979.
A focus on compliance with agreed Protocols to ensure that they are appropriately implemented and are delivering effective air pollution management strategies will be important; this would be consistent with the focus on implementation of environmental legislation more generally that runs through the 7th EAP proposal. It is also of the utmost importance that the Convention facilitates and supports the further adoption of effective air pollution abatement strategies in countries beyond the EU’s eastern borders, where there is significant scope to improve atmospheric air pollution.
Irish Presidency plans for air policy
As you all know, 2013 is the “Year of Air” and Ireland is eager to play our part in focusing on tangible and deliverable reforms and improvements to the EU and international air agendas during our Presidency.
While I am aware that the Commission’s comprehensive package of measures is not expected to be published until the Autumn, I see the value of facilitating early discussions by both policy-makers and Ministers on emerging themes and issues to help inform the shaping of the revision of the Thematic Strategy. Therefore, I have tabled a Ministerial-level discussion on air quality and the urban environment for the Environment Informal Meeting in Dublin on the 22nd of April which will help to raise the political awareness of the forthcoming thematic air strategy and allow for meaningful debate.
However, as we all know, a lot of the groundwork for these broad strategies is carried out by experts and policy-makers within our respective Ministries and Member States. It’s vital that they also have a forum through which to consider the scientific evidence, results and options and to tease out considerations for the Commission’s proposals. To this end, my Ministry, in association with the Commission and the Irish Environmental Protection Agency, is organising a one-day science-policy conference in Dublin, taking place a week before the Ministerial Informal, to discuss the emerging themes of the revision of the Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution as well as the cross-over between air policy and environmental health, and the wider links to climate policy. The outputs and feedback from these discussions will be presented to Ministers the following week to facilitate a productive sharing of views.
Clean air is vital for good public health and a safe and vibrant environment, and is an essential element to the goal of delivering a sustainable society. We have no choice but to breathe the air around us, so air pollution, more than any other form of pollution, impacts directly on human health. To safeguard and enhance our air quality, concerted and collaborative action is required by all stakeholders at local, national and international levels. As I’ve said, this action should be considered in the wider context to deliver climate and other co-benefits – we cannot be complacent or delinquent in our respective responsibilities.
I’d like to thank the EEB for facilitating today’s discussions which I have no doubt will greatly help in raising the level of debate and in mobilising all actors and decision-makers to contribute towards enhanced air policy measures and actions. For our part, the Irish Presidency stands ready to play its part in this evolution.