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Five questions for Julie Girling on air quality and emissions ceilings

21 November 2016

Five questions for Julie Girling on air quality and emissions ceilings

Julie Girling is leading legislation through the European Parliament that is part of a ‘Clean Air package’. The new directive sets targets for national emissions reductions from 2020 through to 2030.

Julie Girling is leading legislation through the European Parliament that is part of a ‘Clean Air package’. The new directive sets targets for national emissions reductions from 2020 through to 2030. MEPs will vote on the law this week and beforehand we caught up with Mrs Girling about what the new law means for the air we breathe, and what effects it could have.


– Can you tell us, why should we care about this vote in the European Parliament?

Julie Girling: Because this is literally about the air we breathe and how long we will live. Poor air quality that is dirty enough to cause health problems is a major issue. It shortens life expectancy, harms the environment and means we have to bear huge economic consequences from the associated health problems and lost productivity. Indeed the Commission estimates that the toll for poor air quality is worse than for road traffic accidents. In order to address this issue, the National Emission Ceilings Directive sets limits for concentrations of five key pollutants in outdoor air.

– Cleaner air is great, but in Europe we also need jobs. Will this harm my chances of getting a job in the future?

Julie Girling: On the contrary, it will boost the EU economy as the Directive will reduce the external costs associated with air pollution by as much as €750 billion. All EU citizens will benefit from improved air quality, but those most susceptible, such as children and the elderly, and those suffering from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) will benefit the most. The Directive will be good for jobs and growth as industry can benefit from pollution mitigation measures, which increase labour productivity (fewer asthma attacks, sick days), boost innovation and competitiveness in the clean economy, and generate new employment opportunities. According to the Commission’s impact assessment, once improvements in productivity are taken into account, the Directive is expected to add around 110,000 new jobs.

– And what other action is the EU taking to cut pollution?

Julie Girling: There are a number of other EU air quality framework laws relevant to tackling this issue, as well as sectoral legislation for large combustion and waste incineration plants, and automotive and maritime fuel quality. But we must also prioritise efforts to ensure full implementation of all this legislation. Public authorities should also benefit, as the new Directive will help them meet their existing obligations and require greater coordination between both national and local government in tackling pollution hotspots through measures such as low emission zones (LEZs) and urban planning strategies.

– Why 2020 and 2030? Surely if people are dying today then we need action now?

Julie Girling: We can’t solve this problem overnight. There is existing EU law and constant discussions at the international level within the UN Economic Commission for Europe. 2020 is about the EU implementing its international commitments under the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) – which includes setting a target for PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter from car exhausts) for the first time. 2030 is the EU’s longer-term target, which ratchets up the overall ambition level. Although we will still be short of the levels recommended by the WHO, the EU must work towards these standards by using a robust evidence base, with a deliverable outcome. It is not sufficient to set higher targets alone. That being said, there is nothing to stop individual Member States going further than the terms of this Directive.

– But Britain is leaving the EU, so why are you still so passionate about it?

Julie Girling: Britain alone cannot tackle air pollution, with atmospheric particulate pollution a major problem across the EU – air pollution simply does not respect national borders. In addition, as mentioned before, compliance with air quality legislation is problematic, with uneven and inconsistent application across many of the UK’s main hotspots. We have made significant progress from the days of the Great Smog of London in 1952, but we must continue to strive for further improvement, and there is much work still to be done.

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