Alice Munro: The National Emissions Ceilings Directive—a critical week for the health of Europeans

alice_munroToday EU leaders will attempt to come to an agreement on air pollution reduction targets that will determine the quality of our air for the next 15 years. The National Emissions Ceiling (NEC) Directive is a key piece of EU emissions legislation that is central to efforts to reduce air pollution. [1] The success of the agreement will, however, depend on the UK government and other member states abandoning efforts to weaken and delay the directive.

The new proposed targets cover six pollutants: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, and volatile organic compounds PM2.5 and Methane. How the targets are achieved is up to member states, but all must be committed to intermediate and final targets for 2020, 2025, and 2030. 

Although all sectors of the economy will be affected by the directive, the methane and ammonia targets have specific implications for agriculture. The influence of the industrial farming sector is causing the UK to call for ammonia reduction targets to be more than halved, and for methane targets to be scrapped altogether. In a leaked memo the environment minister Rory Stewart is said to have advised Tory MEPs that the targets are “not proportionate, deliverable, and evidence-based” and that Britain requires more “flexibility” if particular sectors could be liable to breach targets.

The interests of industrial scale farmers may indeed be challenged in the short-term by the directive: fertilizers are the primary source of ammonia, contributing 90% of emissions in the EU, albeit 85% of these emissions are produced by just 20% of farms according to recent Eurostat data.  In addition 40% of total methane emissions in the EU are produced by agriculture.  However, even the proposed targets are inadequate to achieve the standards set by World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. One of the main precursors to PM2.5 is ammonia, yet current PM2.5 targets are 250% higher than WHO recommendations.

The necessity of reaching a cross-border agreement is brought home by figures on how these pollutants are dispersed: on smog days in London up to 80% of PM 2.5 may originate from pollution outside the UK. If the proposed weakening of the targets suggested by the UK is adopted the revised targets will affect all EU countries, leading to an estimated 11,000 additional deaths in the UK by 2030; that is in addition to 375,000 avoidable deaths already projected by the existing proposal.

The Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics recently produced a report that sets out the damaging effects of air pollution on morbidity throughout the lifespan: from effects on foetal development, to increases in cardiovascular disease, and associated links to asthma, diabetes, dementia, obesity and cancer for the wider population. Among the co-benefits of an even more ambitious agreement that has been proposed by the European Environmental Bureau would be a reduced NHS Bill of between 5.47 and 17.71 billion euros in 2030 (or 2-8% of the total NHS budget).

And that is is only factoring in the immediate healthcare costs. Methane is both an ozone precursor and a known greenhouse gas (GHG). The International Panel on Climate Change estimate methane to have 84 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year time frame, meaning that over this time horizon methane emissions trap 84 times the heat of an equivalent mass of CO2.

The potential health impacts of climate change are overwhelming and well documented by the Lancet Commission on Planetary Health, including driving extreme weather events, food and water insecurity, floods, altered disease vectors, and mental health problems. Already at roughly 1°C of global warming Europe has seen a 60% increase in extreme weather events, in the last week alone floodwaters in Paris have peaked at 6 meters above normal levels, leading to the evacuation of over 5000 people. The UK Climate Change Act commits us to reduce GHG emissions by 80% by 2050, and the UK also played a key role in negotiating a non-binding global agreement in Paris last year to aim to limit GHG emissions in line with 1.5°C global warming. These are admirable goals, but when energy, industrial, housing, transport and agricultural sectors all contribute to GHG emissions, the targets are only meaningful if all government departments pursue policies that are consistent with them.

Beyond air pollution, the case for adopting stronger targets extends to the co-benefits to health of adopting sustainable farming methods.  Last week a report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food highlighted that agro-ecological farming would also help address biodiversity loss, micro-nutrient deficiencies, the rise of obesity and diet-related diseases, and antibiotic resistance.

It is fairly recent, and to a lesser extent ongoing, that sulphur dioxide emissions from UK coal-fired power stations caused acid rain that devastated forests, lakes and fish stocks in Northern Europe. We know that without international cooperation on pollution countries make themselves vulnerable to the practises of industries hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. The health benefits of ambitious, legally binding and inflexible targets are known, measurable and will support better health for all.

[1]  Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants and amending Directive 2003/35/EC

Alice Munro, Climate, Energy and Health Project Manager, Medact.

Competing interests:  Position at Medact is funded by the Sainsbury Foundation Charitable Trust.