EU environment ministers meet in Brussels

Council finalises positions on benzene in air, UN biosafety protocol, industry inspections

EU Environment ministers assembled in Brussels today for their last regular meeting of the year, which was previewed in ENDS Daily last week (ENDS Daily 9 December). As our publication deadline passed, ministers had dealt with only three items on the agenda, which are summarised below. Discussions continued into the evening on controversial aspects of Commission proposals to limit emissions from large combustion plants and to introduce environmental impact assessment procedures for strategic plans and programmes. We will report fully on these in tomorrow's issue.

* Benzene and carbon monoxide air quality limits:

Member states reached political agreement at first reading on a proposed directive that will limit ambient air levels of benzene to 5 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) by 2010 and levels of carbon monoxide to 10 milligrams/m3 by 2005 (ENDS Daily 22 November). A final compromise that enabled the agreement to be made relates to rights for EU member states to delay implementation of the benzene limit in urban areas where achieving the objective would bring serious economic difficulties.

Several member states had wanted to follow the European Parliament's demand that no exemptions be given on the benzene limit, but ministers agreed to allow the possibility while limiting it to a maximum of one five-year period (ENDS Daily 3 December). Agglomerations receiving derogations will also have to apply a limit of 10ug/m3.

The European Commission's proposal would allow "time-limited extensions...for periods up to five years" to meet the limits, with no upper air quality limit once a derogation was granted. Several countries argued for less strict derogation terms, but only Spain voted against the compromise, arguing that its climatic circumstances warranted longer potential exemptions from the law.

* UN biosafety protocol:

Ministers reaffirmed their determination to reach an agreement on a global agreement on binding rules governing transboundary movements of genetically modified organisms. Talks on the UN biosafety protocol broke down earlier this year after the "Miami group" of grain-exporting countries opposed plans to include commodities such as grain for feed and processing, as well as seeds for cultivation (ENDS Daily 24 February). A new round of international talks on the protocol will be held in January.

The protocol will introduce strict labelling and prior notification requirements for movements of GMOs. EU environment ministers today reaffirmed their position that the protocol should cover GMOs for "food, feed or for processing" as well as for cultivation, as well as reflecting "the role of the precautionary principle". "We got very strong backing for a tough negotiating position," a spokesperson for EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström told reporters.

* Inspection standards recommendation:

Ministers wasted little time in agreeing a first reading position on a recommendation on minimum criteria for inspections at industrial and other installations controlled by national environmental inspection agencies. As reported by ENDS Daily last week (ENDS Daily 9 December), the last remaining point at issue had been resolved before the meeting through the exclusion of nuclear installations from its scope.

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

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