Photo: Greg McNevin

‘Strict but realistic’ – experts call for tighter controls on industrial air pollution

Experts from the European Environment Agency have called on governments to set “strict but realistic” limits on pollution, including from coal-fired power plants.

An EEA analysis published this week reveals emissions of key pollutants could be cut by up to 91% if updated EU rules are properly enforced.

The new briefing ‘Greening the power sector: benefits of an ambitious implementation of Europe’s environment and climate policies‘ reflects the conclusions of the 2016 NGO report Lifting Europe’s Dark Cloud: How Cutting Coal Saves Lives.

The Lifting Europe’s Dark Cloud report showed that 20,000 premature deaths could be prevented every year by setting and enforcing pollution limits in line with the best industry-recognised, tried-and-tested techniques.

According to the report the total cost of all health impacts of coal pollution could be cut from €63.2bn to €24.3bn every year, a figure that could only be cut to zero by the complete phase out all coal-fired generation.

Citizens Beyond Coal‘ Katowice, Poland, December 4, 2018 – 3D printed statues of people from across Europe who are affected by air pollution and just transition issues arising from coal plants make up an artistic installation at the UNFCCC COP24 conference. Subjects from Germany, Poland, Romania and Spain were 3D scanned before being printed, so they could attend the COP and make their voices heard even if they could not come in person. Here each subject, printed with technology in biodegradable plastic, “emerges” from the steel of an industrial past to a new, sustainable future. Each carries a symbol – a megaphone, a tree, a set of lungs – that speaks to their story. Europe Beyond Coal / Greg McNevin

The updated pollution limits are contained in an EU law that was finally agreed last year. However, the German government has since been criticized for missing its own one-year deadline for implementation, despite the opportunity to cut coal pollution in the country by around 75%.

A META story last month revealed how some German coal plants were polluting at more than twice what was possible because of cost-saving measures imposed by owners like RWE.

Christian Schaible, an EEB Policy Manager and expert on the EU rules said:

“The shocking reality is that while coal-burning companies like RWE are unnecessarily pumping out huge amounts of air pollution, with an enormous cost for our health, they are at the same time demanding compensation for what they think is the ‘early closure’ of their plants.”

Another report, Last Gasp: The Coal Companies Making Europe Sick, launched last month, shows that RWE are the single most toxic polluter in Europe. Its coal plants are responsible for more than €5.4bn of health costs every year.


Despite the externalised costs of RWE’s pollution, the company has been calling for compensation should its plants be closed to meet climate targets.

Unlike previous emissions rules, the new EU law provides emissions ranges, describing an ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ level for setting pollution limits. The EEA briefing is explicit that:

“The lower limit is the level of ambition that Member States should strive for when setting permit conditions.”

Schaible said that it was important that governments all over Europe took note of the EEA’s conclusions and didn’t miss the opportunity to protect human health and the environment by setting stricter limits on harmful pollution and that this meant: “…going well beyond the minimum ‘upper’ levels set in the EU law” as these were the “absolute minimum that should be expected“. He concluded:

“Nothing but the strictest limits is acceptable for any plants still operating beyond 2025.”