Lack of action on air quality dilutes Council's ambition on nature protection

EEB Reactions


16/12/15 Brussels

Lack of action on air quality dilutes Council’s ambition on nature protection

EU Environment Ministers meeting in Brussels (1) have today adopted a contradictory set of conclusions which reveal inconsistencies between Member States’ positions on nature protection and air quality. Clean air is essential for healthy people, plants, and habitats, yet ministers have adopted Council conclusions through which they purport to protect nature, while allowing big business and agro-industry to carry on polluting our air in ways that will both harm nature (2) and people’s health.

The 28 Ministers reiterated their commitment to the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy (3) and acknowledged that EU nature laws need to be better implemented, but they fell short of the mark when it came to the National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) Directive, aimed at improving Europe’s poor air quality. Despite a strong steer from the European Parliament earlier this year, national ministers opted to water down this text thereby allowing emissions from harmful pollutants such as ammonia and fine particles to continue to be churned out in dangerously high amounts. The text also entirely removes methane from the Directive and contains a series of exemptions making the limits to be put in place at best unenforceable and at worst meaningless. (4)

Louise Duprez, EEB Senior Policy Officer for Air Quality, said: “This generous Christmas gift to big polluting industries and agro-businesses will have high costs for Europeans, resulting in thousands of premature deaths, illnesses, allergies and other health impacts, as well as damage to Europe’s nature and wildlife. However, this is not the final word on this issue; the Council can still overturn this lack of ambition and reintroduce strong air pollution targets as it enters into negotiations with the European Parliament. This is the time for the Council to take its responsibility in the fight against air pollution and put people’s health before vested interests.”

Leonardo Mazza, EEB Senior Policy Officer for Biodiversity and Ecosystems, said: “Environment Ministers have today recognised just how vital EU nature laws are and how their effectiveness has been hampered by inconsistent implementation and inadequate financing. Given that these two laws – the Birds and Habitats Directives - are currently the subject of a review, today’s conclusions send a strong signal to the European Commission that there is widespread support among European governments for safeguarding the legislation (5). But while Ministers recognised the need to bring other policies in line to protect biodiversity, it’s unfortunate that they showed a total lack of ambition when it comes to limiting ammonia emissions from farming. This will make it even more difficult and costly to achieve a speedy recovery of threatened habitats and species.”


For more information:

Louise Duprez, EEB Senior Policy Officer for Air Quality
Tel: +32 (0) 2 289 13 07

Leonardo Mazza, EEB Senior Policy Officer for Biodiversity and Ecosystems
Tel: +32 (0) 2 289 10 93

Emily Macintosh, EEB Communications Officer for Nature and Agriculture
Tel: +32 (0) 2 274 10 86

Notes to editors:

(1) Today’s meeting is the last coming together of environment ministers under the Luxembourg Presidency before the baton is passed to the Dutch at the start of 2016. The EEB will publish its 10 Green Tests for the Dutch Presidency at the end of this week.


(3) The text adopted today deals with the European Commission’s Mid-term Review of the EU’s 2020 Biodiversity Strategy. The European Parliament will have its say on the Commission’s report in an early February plenary vote.

(4) Text adopted by Coreper and discussed by Council today:

(Broadly adopted with some additional changes available soon.)

The National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) Directive sets limits to the amount of pollution every EU country can emit on a yearly basis. Currently, the EU is looking at setting new caps for 2020, 2025 and 2030 for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen oxide (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2), volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), ammonia (NH3) and methane (CH4). The European Parliament broadly backed the European Commission’s proposal in a plenary vote on 28 October. Negotiations between the Parliament and Council are expected to start under the Dutch Presidency in 2016.

Air pollution continues to cause hundreds of thousands of premature deaths in the EU every year, as well as significant damage to nature, crops and buildings. (See 2015 EEA air quality report:

The Council position weakens the ambition level from a Commission proposal that would reduce premature mortality by 2030 by 52% to 48% - just six percentage points more than what should be achieved under current legislation. It also supports removing methane entirely.

A number of loopholes - so-called ‘flexibilities’ - pushed by Member States with high premature death rates from air pollution including France, Italy, Germany and the UK - render the targets unenforceable. These include:

  • Pollution-swapping - Member States would be allowed to exceed emissions limits for a pollutant by emitting less of another;
  • 3-year averaging - extra emissions generated during dry summers, cold winters and unforeseen economic activities can be offset by better performance in later or earlier years;
  • Member states have the option to set their own targets for reductions for 2025;
  • No liability for Member States of an emissions source - for example, diesel cars - emits more than expected.

These flexibilities fundamentally undermine the basic purpose of the NEC Directive - to limit pollution, and prevent potentially hundreds of thousands of premature deaths across the EU.

(5) 12 Member States have explicitly called on the European Commission not to revise EU nature laws - the Birds and Habitats Directives - and instead step up their implementation. The laws are currently the subject of a European Commission Fitness Check. The full outcome of the Fitness Check will be published in spring 2016.