EU ministers split on air emissions ceilings

First debate on proposal confirms southern states' resistance to plans to cut pollution further

Difficult political obstacles facing an EU proposal to cut acidification, eutrophication and ground-level ozone pollution were confirmed today as environmental ministers from southern EU countries refused to reduce emissions of four key pollutants as far as suggested by the European Commission. Following a ministerial debate on the plan to slash emissions of ammonia (NH3), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx ) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), new EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström admitted that the signs were "not overall encouraging."

Proposed by the Commission in August, the proposal on national emissions ceilings (NECs) would set upper limits on emissions and force a reduction of 78% for SO2, 55% for NOx, 60% for VOCs and 21% for ammonia (ENDS Daily 9 June). At today's meeting of the EU Environment Council in Luxembourg, national delegations were divided over both emissions limits and the measures necessary to implement them.

The talks on the EU directive follow recent negotiations in Geneva where EU countries signed up to a UN protocol with similar aims but less ambitious emissions reduction targets (ENDS Daily 2 September). Opening the debate, Swedish environment minister Kjell Larsson told colleagues he was "worried" that not enough progress was made in Geneva, while his Danish counterpart Svend Auken said it was a "scandal" that environment ministers had set such "narrow" objectives.

As preparatory talks for today's ministerial had demonstrated, the EU's Mediterranean membership looks set to provide the main opposition to emissions cuts of the scale proposed by the Commission (ENDS Daily 13 September).

Portugal said it would find it "difficult" to go beyond the limits it has proposed for itself under the UN protocol, while Greece said its UN emissions cut bid represented a "happy balance" for the country's circumstances which it "can't go beyond." Meanwhile, Spanish environment minister Juan Luis Muriel said the EU targets proposed for his country were "out of proportion" with what it could do.

Other countries left open the possibility of agreeing stronger ceilings than in the protocol but stressed that they had already set challenging targets. Meanwhile, the Belgian and French environment ministers expressed reservations about the methods involved in calculating the ceilings.

Similar divisions entered the discussion over measures needed to meet the proposed reductions. In particular, ministers were asked whether they felt it would be necessary to amend a planned directive controlling emissions from large combustion plants to include existing rather than just new plants. Greece and Spain were joined by the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands in arguing against the move, while Belgium, Denmark and Sweden were in favour.

Responding to the criticisms of the directive, Ms Wallström insisted that the Commission had "done its homework" in drafting the proposal and pledged that she would do her best to "draw countries together" over the plans.

Correction, 15/10/99
In tha above article we accidentally described Juan Luis Muriel as Spain'senvironment minister. Mr Muriel is secretary general of the ministry andheaded the Spanish delegation at the Luxembourg Environment Council.Spain's environment minister is, of course, Isabel Tocino.

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

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