The European Parliament yesterday approved new European targets and maximum limits for air pollution. Amendments adopted by MEPs to the proposed Directive set more ambitious targets for air quality but at the same time allow greater flexibility for Member States to adapt their legislation.

MEPs voted to reduce from 2010 the maximum permissible average concentration levels for PM10, the largest particles. However, other amendments increased the number of days per year when daily maximum limits of these particles can be exceeded. On the more harmful and finer particles (PM 2.5), MEPs set targets rather than limits, given the current level of scientific knowledge.

But the targets would become binding when the directive is revised in 2015. MEPs also added references to pollution from incinerators, HGVs, domestic heating installations and ships in the terms of the directive. German MEP Holger Krahmer, who steered the legislation through Parliament, said that the vote represented ’a balanced compromise between strict health protection and the flexibility needed" at national level, especially for pollution from neighbouring countries.

Two London MEPs spoke in Monday’s debate. Unless the Council of Ministers accepts all of the amendments adopted this week, the directive will return for a 2nd reading in the European Parliament at a later stage.

Excerpts from Monday’s debate (25 September 2006) in Strasbourg:

John Bowis (Conservative, London): Mr President, if you want to know why we are having this debate, come with me down Oxford Street, in my constituency of London, where you can smell, taste and feel the air pollution that we seek to tackle. An earlier generation was faced with smog and it tackled that with Clean Air Acts, which stopped coal burning in homes, in industries and on railways. Now we face the challenge of fine particles and the respiratory and cardiovascular effect that has on our constituents: the extra medication, the millions of lost working days each year and premature deaths. In my constituency, 1 000 people die prematurely as a result of pollution and another 1 000 are sent to hospital.

It is now estimated that PM 2.5 pollution is responsible for reducing our life expectancy by some eight months. That is the challenge. That is why we need to tackle pollution at source in relation to cars and heavy vehicles, ships, agricultural feed, energy-using products and so forth. However, we also need to tackle it through this directive, simplifying the previous legal instruments while bringing in this new standard for the smaller particles, the 2.5s, because we know those are the most dangerous to human health. We need a robust directive and the Commissioner is right to remind us that we must not go back on things already agreed. My delegation will certainly vote for standards that are challenging, that are effective and that will be implemented sooner rather than later.

Sarah Ludford (Liberal Democrat, London): Like Mr Bowis, I represent London, the city traditionally known as the ‘Big Smoke’. London’s air today is still very polluted and is amongst the worst of any city in Europe. EU air pollution limits are significantly exceeded along London’s major road network, in Central London and around Heathrow Airport, where nitrogen dioxide is 50% above the limit, due to a combination of aeroplanes and vehicles.

I welcome much that is positive in the new proposals and the Krahmer report, such as the streamlining of the law, greater public accessibility to monitoring results, new limits for fine particulates and stricter ones for other pollutants. However, I am very concerned about the effect in my city of postponing the deadlines, perhaps until 2018 instead of 2010, for hot spots. Londoners would be asked to trust the British Government or the Mayor of London to seek postponement when it is genuinely impossible to meet the 2010 deadlines... One barrier between the UK Government and its goal of bulldozing through a third runway at Heathrow is EU air-quality limits, in particular nitrogen dioxide. I fear a long postponement will allow it to wriggle round those limits. I am surprised and somewhat disappointed that MEPs are being less progressive than EU governments, at least on the issue of deadlines. It is the first time in seven years in this House that I have found the Council more progressive than the European Parliament.