The Gothenburg Protocol - progress on implementation
The European Council has adopted a decision to accept, on behalf of the EU, an amendment to the 1999 Gothenburg Protocol to reduce air pollutant emissions around the world, meaning the EU can now formally accept the amendment. The amendment creates more rigorous commitments to emission reduction for the four main air pollutants. It will enter into force on the 90th day after its ratification.
What is the background to the Gothenburg Protocol?
The Gothenburg Protocol — ie the 1999 Protocol to Abate Acidification, Eutrophication and Ground-level Ozone (as amended in 2012) — forms part of the 1979 UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, which aims to protect humans from air pollution.
The Convention came about following greater awareness of the impacts and causes of acid rain in the Northern Hemisphere in the 1960s and 70s. It entered into force in 1983 and established the first international framework for the reduction of air pollutants.
The Convention is supplemented by eight protocols which contain legally binding emission reduction targets. The Gothenburg Protocol set emission ceilings for a number of pollutants (such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and ammonia) in order to reduce acidification, eutrophication and ground-level ozone. The Protocol was originally signed by 31 parties and has now been ratified by 26, including a large number of European countries, the EU and the USA.
In 2012, the parties present at the 30th session of the Executive Body of the Convention adopted Decision 2012/1 and Decision 2012/2 amending the Protocol—known as the ‘2012 Amendment’. On 17 July 2017, the Council adopted a decision accepting the 2012 Amendment on behalf of the EU.
What are the current air emission controls imposed under the Protocol?
The Protocol initially imposed emissions ceilings for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonium and volatile organic compounds, to be achieved by 2010 and beyond.
It also imposed ‘limit values’ for specific sources of emissions, including combustion plants, the production of cement, dry cleaning and electricity generation, and mandates that parties use ‘best available techniques’ to minimise emissions from these activities.
What are the amendments to the Protocol?
Following the 2012 Amendment, new emissions ceilings have now been imposed for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonium and volatile organic compounds to be achieved by 2020 and beyond. The emissions reductions targets have also been extended to fine particulate matter (including black carbon, marking the first time that international air pollution policy has included a commitment to reduce this).
According to the European Commission, the 2012 amendments would achieve ‘a reduction in EU emissions of around 60% for sulphur, 40% for nitrogen oxides (NOx), 30% for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), 6% for ammonia and 20% for particulate matter compared to 2005 levels’.
The 2012 Amendment has also altered the emission limit values for specific sources of emissions, including stationary sources (including processing plants and factories) and mobile sources (eg mobile machines and vehicles). New standards have also been introduced for the content of volatile organic compounds (other than non-methane compounds).
What are the next steps?
When the parties adopted the 2012 Amendment, this comprised two decisions:
Decision 2012/1, which mainly concerned amendments to Annex I to the Protocol, and
Decision 2012/2, which contained more substantive amendments to the text of the Protocol and several of its annexes
Decision 2012/1 automatically entered into force on 5 June 2013. However, Decision 2012/2 must be ratified by two-thirds of the parties before it enters into force. Accordingly its formal adoption by the EU represents a positive step towards these important changes to international air pollution policy.
When and how will they be implemented?
The emission limits contained in the 2012 Amendment have already been implemented in the EU through Directive2016/2284/EU on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants (the NEC Directive) and Directive2015/2193/EU of the European Parliament and the Council of 25 November 2015 on the limitation of emissions of certain pollutants into the air from medium combustion plants (the Medium Combustion Plants Directive).
The NEC Directive integrates the reduction targets for 2020–29, and imposes more stringent reduction targets for EU Member States from 2030 as follows: sulphur dioxide—79%, nitrogen oxides—63%, ammonia—19%, volatile organic compounds—40%, and fine particulate matter—49%.
Member States are required to implement the Medium Combustion Plants Directive and the NEC Directive by 17 December 2017 and 30 June 2018 respectively. It remains to be seen whether the UK will meet these deadlines, given that this be in the middle of Brexit negotiations.