Governments close to EU air pollution deal

Negotiators back Commission proposed limits on benzene, carbon monoxide, disagree on derogations

EU member states are close to agreeing a position on European Commission proposals to set EU-wide limits on levels of benzene and carbon monoxide in air, according to sources in the Council of Ministers. Officials say that the directive could be finalised without the need for a second reading, though debate is currently continuing over what scope governments should have to seek delays in achieving the limit for benzene.

At a Council of Ministers working party meeting last week, diplomats agreed to back the ambient air limits proposed for the two pollutants by the Commission (ENDS Daily 2 December 1998). These are 5 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) from 2010 for benzene and 10 milligrams per cubic metre from 2005 for carbon monoxide (CO). Transport emissions are the main cause of pollution by both chemicals. Benzene is carcinogenic.

However, a consensus was not reached on the scope for countries to request from the Commission derogations to allow towns and cities with particular benzene pollution problems longer to achieve the limits.

Under the Commission's proposal, derogations lasting up to five years could be sought for urban areas that would experience "severe socioeconomic difficulties" in meeting the benzene standard. The European Parliament's environment committee is proposing to restrict this further to allow for a single derogation period only, lasting a maximum of five years, with ambient levels not allowed to exceed 10 ug/m3 during the derogation period (ENDS Daily 17 November).

Some northern countries are opposed to any derogations, while southern countries, where transport-related benzene pollution is more often a problem, find the Commission's proposal too strict. It remains unclear what the outcome of this debate will be, but according to sources diplomats are discussing elements including the length and number of derogations, maximum air concentrations allowed under them and the conditions necessary to invoke a derogation.

The European Parliament is due to vote through its formal opinion on the directive next week, and Council sources suggested that the two institutions might be able to finalise the directive without a second reading.

In a declaration signed after the EU's new Amsterdam treaty came into force earlier this year, the institutions agreed to adopt laws after the first reading when their positions were sufficiently close. If the procedure is invoked in this case the directive could enter into force in January.

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

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