New EU Air Pollution Package Adopted to Slash Power Plant Emissions

A new major air pollution policy package adopted by the European Union (EU) on Dec. 18 updates existing legislation to further curb air emissions from power plants. 


The so-called “Clean Air package” consists of a clean air program for Europe to ensure existing air quality targets are met through interim objectives scheduled through 2030. The package also includes support measures to help cut air pollution, with a focus on improving air quality in cities, supporting research and innovation, and promoting international cooperation. 

However, it also revises the National Emission Ceilings Directive (NECD), setting stricter national emission caps for 2020 and 2030. The NECD governs six main pollutants: particulate matter, sulfur dioxides (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia, volatile organic compounds, and methane. The EU Ambient Air Quality Directive, which set local air quality limits, was not revised because “the new policy proposes stricter emission ceilings in the revised NECD and, together with new source legislation, this will pave the way for tightened standards in the Ambient Air Quality Directive at a later stage” the European Commission (EC) said.

Finally, the package proposes a new directive to slash pollution from “medium-sized combustion installments,” which include heat and power plants of between 1 MWth and 50 MWth. The EU expects the new directive, which sets limit values for new and existing installations, will make major reductions in the emissions of NOx, SO2, and particulate matter. The proposal is necessary to “avoid possible trade-offs between air quality and increased biomass use, which may otherwise result in increased air pollution,” the EU said. 

The package’s adoption culminates a major review of air policy that began in early 2011. 

Existing EU air quality policy already mandates significant reductions in concentrations of particulate matter, SO2, lead, NOx, carbon monoxide, and benzene. But, according to the EU, member states are still falling short of agreed EU air quality standards—particularly as they apply to fine particulates and ozone—as well as air pollution guidelines from the United Nations World Health Organization, which are generally not being met. 

The EC on Dec. 18 said implementing the package would save about €40 billion ($54.6 billion) a year for health issues, which “is over 12 times the costs of pollution abatement.” The EU parliamentary body estimates that total external health-related costs to society from air pollution range between €330 billion and €940 billion per year. 

In a joint statement before the package was adopted, industry groups expressed “misgivings” about the robustness of underlying elements on which the emission reduction commitments were set. The groups said there were uncertainties in underlying energy projections; uncertainties and errors in the way emission projections are calculated based on a view of current EU and national legislation; and uncertainties about the benefits methodology used to derive ambition levels. 

In particular, the associations object to a long-term goal of closing 75% of the gap between legislative requirements and what is technically achievable by 2025. These should instead aim for what is “cost-effectively achievable”—50% by 2030, they said.

“As a result, the proposed high environmental ambition levels are at significant risk of being unattainable which would consequently lead to additional requirements going beyond what is technically feasible and have detrimental effects for EU industry’s competitiveness and EU jobs,” they said.

Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)

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