Four of Europe’s biggest countries are among those asking the European Commission to be allowed to pollute more, effectively dodging limits they already missed back in 2016.

Alongside Germany, France, Spain and the UK, the governments of Austria, Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg have also claimed additional emissions from “road transportation” mean they should effectively be allowed to raise their limits for harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx). These additional emissions are as a result of the Dieselgate scandal, which revealed the real world emissions of diesel cars were significantly higher than manufacturers has claimed.

Campaigners have said that the decision to allow additional pollution following the discovery of cheating by the car industry is “astonishingly illogical”. They argue that governments shouldn’t attempt to hide their failure to take action against the auto industry following Dieselgate.

Campaigners say the ability to change targets that have already been missed undermines the law and allows governments to ‘hide’ their failure to cut toxic pollution.

Breeches of EU air quality laws for NOx have recently seen governments sent to Europe’s top court for their failure to clean up their air.

Margherita Tolotto, EEB’s Air Quality Policy Officer said:

“Earlier this year we welcomed the Commission’s decision to send a number of governments to court for failing to clean up their toxic air. Now we are asking the Commission to once again step up and protect Europeans from harmful pollution.”

Requests for so-called ‘inventory adjustments’, which effectively amount to a raised limit for total pollution in each country, are made to the European Commission. EU officials are now being asked to accept the arguments made by national governments.

The adjustments process is part of the European Union’s National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive, which sets absolute caps for the amount of pollution allowed by any one country within a year. Under the law governments can adjust their calculated emissions for previous years so as to comply with historical limits, even after targets have been missed, if certain circumstances apply.

In a joint letter to EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella, the EEB, AirClim and ClientEarth warned that use of the loophole should be kept to a “strict minimum” and that it should be considered whether governments have taken any action to tackle additional emissions before granting any adjustments.

In total  eleven governments have requested ‘adjustments’.

Alongside the requests to raise limits for nitrogen oxides (NOx), governments have also asked for additional allowances for ammonia (NH3) and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs). All governments asking for adjustments to their NOx limits used “road transportation” as their justification, with the NH3 and NMVOC adjustments mostly linked to agricultural activities.

‘Inventory adjustments’ applied for by country:

NOx NH3 NMVOC
Austria x x
Belgium x x
Germany x x x
Denmark x x
Spain x
Finland x
France x
Hungary x
Ireland x x
Luxembourg x x
United Kingdom x

Tolotto says that the argument that discovering new emissions means targets should be raised is “astonishingly illogical”:

“Not only does it help to hide a serious health threat from the public, it also protects cheating companies from deserved criticism and appropriate consequences. Let’s not forget, it was national authorities in Member States that failed to properly check vehicle emissions, the EU should not allow governments to hide their failure to deliver on their original commitments.”

Experts say that the requests also highlight the increasing impact of agricultural emissions on urban air pollution.

Ammonia gets into the air when fields are fertilized and animal waste breaks down. It combines with industrial emissions to create extremely harmful fine particles. Unlike other air pollutants, overall ammonia emissions in Europe are on the rise, yet five countries are asking for these limits to be raised.

Environment Commissioner Vella has stressed the importance of EU action to tackle harmful air pollution citing that European Commission’s aim of being ‘big on the big things’ and saying: “It doesn’t get bigger than the loss of life due to air pollution.”

 

This article was edited to clarify that annual air pollution limits are not actually raised by ‘inventory adjustments’, the adjustments are rather calculations that allow certain reported emissions to be deducted from a country’s total emissions.