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A step further in limiting pollutant emissions in Europe: the new directive 2016/2284

1. On 17th December 2016, Directive (EU) 2016/2284 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14th December 2016 on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants, amending Directive 2003/35/EC and repealing Directive 2001/81/EC, was published in the Official Journal of the European Union. The new Directive entered into force on 31st December 2016, and its transposition period ends on 1st July 20181.

This Directive intends to review the objectives on the reduction of certain pollutants governed by the previous Directive of 2001 and to align the European environmental policy with the international general objectives and rules in this matter, such as the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution of 1979 (the "LRTAP Convention") and its Protocol to Abate Acidification, Eutrophication and Ground-level Ozone of 1999, revised in 2012.

On this basis, Directive (EU) 2016/2284 expressly declares to serve to the purposes to which the World Health Organisation and the 7th Environment Action Programme aim in terms of air quality objectives, biodiversity and ecosystem protection. The scope of the Directive comprises the emissions of certain components (see below) from all sources in the territory of Member States, their exclusive economic zones and pollution control zones, except for some particular territories and activities (such as aircraft emissions beyond the landing and take-off cycle).

2. Among the most important issues brought by this Directive, the following must be highlighted:

(i) Reduction objectives are imposed for sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC), ammonia (NH3) and fine particulate matter (PM2,5) (as compared to the 2001 Directive, PM2,5 are included, whereas methane volatile organic compounds are excluded).

For this purpose, two different timelines are considered: from 2020 to 2029, and from 2030 onwards. In both cases, the reduction is calculated for each Member State as a percentage with 2005 emissions as its basis. Thus, percentages may vary greatly amongst countries, substances and timelines. On the contrary, the 2001 Directive considered emissions ceilings as an overall amount, which could not be exceeded by 2010.

Directive (EU) 2016/2284 prescribes a linear reduction trajectory comprising 2020 and 2030 levels, so that 2025 will be the milestone to assess the progress of such a reduction. Member States not complying with this linear reduction will have to explain the reasons for such a deviation and the measures to achieve the reduction trajectory. On the other hand, Member States may follow a non-linear reduction trajectory until 2025 if economic or technical efficiency reasons are justified and provided that they converge to the linear trajectory as from 2025 and the achievement of the reduction objectives is not affected.

(ii) Member States must devise and implement a national air pollution programme to achieve reduction objectives. These programmes will be updated at least every four years. According to Annex III of the Directive they must include inter alia the relevant national policy framework considered, the policies assessed to comply with the emissions reduction and the allocation of powers between different national authorities.

Annex III also contains mandatory measures to be included in the programmes and optional approaches regarding ammonia and fine particulate matter among others. The Directive also expressly mentions transnational effects to be assessed in national programmes when appropriate.

This national air pollution programme is to be implemented in accordance with other monitoring programmes, such as air quality plans of Directive 2008/50/EC and the LRTAP Convention. The first national air pollution programme must be provided by Member States to the European Commission by 1st April 2019.

(iii) The Directive allows Member States to apply certain flexibility to their reduction commitments – i.e., not to fully comply with such commitments. These "flexibilities" are envisaged for exceptional cases such as, for instance, cases of a particularly cold winter or dry summer, or to a sudden and exceptional interruption or loss of capacity in the power or heat supply.

The Commission, assisted by the European Environment Agency, shall review and assess whether the use of any of the flexibilities for a particular year fulfils the relevant conditions to which the flexibility is subject.

(iv) A so-called "European Clean Air Forum" is to be set up by the Commission to provide input for guidance and facilitate the coordinated implementation of EU legislation and policies related to improving air quality, bringing together all stakeholders, i.e. competent authorities of the Member States, the Commission, industry, civil society and the scientific community at regular intervals. This Forum shall exchange experience and good practices, including on emission reductions from domestic heating and road transport, that can inform and enhance the national air pollution control programmes and their implementation.

3. Other aspects of Directive (EU) 2016/2284 which deserve to be noted are the following:

(a) As part of the comprehensive approach that the Directive intends to apply, negative effects of air pollution on ecosystems must be monitored. To this purpose, a network must be designed to control aspects such as freshwater, natural and semi-natural habits and forest ecosystem types. Annex V of the Directive includes a number of optional indicators to take into account for this purpose.

(b) The Commission shall endeavour to facilitate access to existing EU funds to support the measures to be taken with a view to complying with the objectives of the Directive.

(c) Member States and the Commission shall ensure the active and systematic dissemination to the public of certain information subject to this Directive, such as national air pollution control programmes and their updates and their examination by the Commission.

4. In summary: Directive (EU) 2016/2284 updates the previous European Union rules on reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants. Whereas the Directive is not an absolute innovation within the environmental legal framework, it does represent a step forward in the path towards a more intense and comprehensive protection of human health and the environment, namely in relation to limits to pollutants and the content of the national programmes. Special attention must be given to how Member States will implement the Directive, so as to ensure that the goals sought by the Directive are achieved.

  1. Except for certain provisions relating to the submission dates of national emission inventories and projections, the transposition period of which ends on 15th February 2017.