Ireland wants ‘get out of jail free card’ for air pollution, say leading environmental NGOs

Published by Lia Flattery on

August 1st, 2017

Ireland is among nine EU countries seeking “get out of jail free cards” from the European Commission for breaking air pollution ceilings, according to Europe’s leading environmental NGOs.

The move has been criticised by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), ClientEarth, Transport & Environment, AirClim and the Health and Environment Alliance in a letter to Europe’s Environment Commissioner, Karmenu Vella.

According to the letter, the nine states – Ireland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Finland, France and Luxembourg – breached their national air pollution limits for 2015.

The nine states have now asked the European Commission to raise their limits for that year so that they “no longer appear to have breached them”, the letter states.

The EU’s National Emission Ceilings Directive established annual caps for the amounts of pollutants that any one country is allowed to produce from land sources.

In certain circumstances, governments can request exceptions to previous years’ national caps, called ‘inventory adjustments’.

The letter argues, however, that the adjustments would result in “increased air pollution and associated health impacts” compared to levels originally agreed under the Directive.

The EEB has said that these adjustments act as “get out of jail free cards” as they allow states to avoid “repercussions for breaching otherwise binding limits”.

The letter also calls on the European Commission to limit the use of adjustments to the “strict minimum” due to the adverse effects of air pollution on human health and the environment.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has described air pollution as the world’s  “single biggest environmental health risk”.

It estimates that over 400,000 premature deaths are attributable to poor air quality in Europe annually. In Ireland, this figure is estimated at 1,200 people.

Most of the nine states, including Ireland, are seeking adjustments for nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions produced by diesel vehicles.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), emissions from traffic are the main source of NOx in Ireland, along with electricity generating stations and industry.

The 2015 ‘Dieselgate’ scandal revealed that Volkswagen and other car companies falsified emissions data to conceal that their diesel vehicles failed to comply with regulations.

However, the environmental groups behind the letter said that it was known long before ‘Dieselgate’ that road vehicles “are responsible for additional emissions”.

The letter states that by asking for exceptions now, governments are “simply trying to make up for their own policy failures on air quality”.

The letter also criticises national policies that encourage “high dieselisation” of car fleets in EU member states, such as tax incentives.

Since the adoption of the CO2-based motor taxation system in 2008, Irish drivers have been incentivised into buying diesel vehicles in order to qualify for cheaper tax.

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Lia Flattery

Lía is a former writer and Deputy Editor at Trinity News. She also has a BA in History and English Literature from Trinity College Dublin.