Ministers agree EU ground-level ozone limits

First reading common position could provoke conciliation talks with European Parliament

EU environment ministers meeting in Luxembourg today reached unanimous political agreement on a directive aimed at reducing ground-level ozone pollution. The text agreed is a slightly weakened version of the one proposed by the European Commission last year, based on a ministerial agreement to set national emission ceilings for ozone "precursor" pollutants reached in June. European Parliament demands for ozone limits be made more binding have not been accepted.

Ground-level, or "tropospheric," ozone increases human mortality by damaging the respiratory system and is generated by sunlight reacting with precursor pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds. It causes widespread damage to vegetation and presents an intractable problem for regulators because of its unpredictable formation and transboundary nature. It is also a contributor to climate change, though not covered by the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gases.

Under today's accord, member states will be allowed to exceed the World Health Organisation's "guideline" ambient air ozone concentration of 120 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) on no more than 25 days each year by 2010. The Commission originally proposed 20 days (ENDS Daily 9 June 1999) but has accepted that the weaker ceilings agreed for precursor pollutants now make this unrealistic (ENDS Daily 22 June). "We would have liked to see more ambitious limit values, but it's a good compromise," environment commissioner Margot Wallström said today.

Environmentalists are also relatively pleased with this aspect of the deal, having feared agreement on a 40-day exceedance target under pressure from sunny southern EU member states Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Portugal. In the end, Swedish, Dutch and Danish pressure to maintain the Commission's original figure led to adoption of the lower compromise figure.

The European Parliament may be less enchanted with the changes, however. It also wanted to limit exceedences to 20 days by 2010 but, more importantly, voted to make this a strictly binding target (ENDS Daily 15 March). The Council and Commission, meanwhile, say it should be achieved only "as far as possible".

Moreover, MEPs want to set a long-term "objective" of zero exceedences of the WHO limit by 2020, a proposal rejected by the other two institutions. The parliament's appetite for a conciliation showdown over the differences will now be tested as the dossier returns there for its second reading.

In other sections of the directive, ministers left unchanged the current 180 ug/m3 threshold above which the public must be informed of high ozone concentrations, but lowered the more serious "alert" threshold to 240 ug/m3. Only the UK and Belgium opposed the move, preferring the current alert value of 360 ug/m3. Ministers also weakened a vegetation protection threshold proposed by the Commission.

Follow Up:
EU Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111.

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