Stop industry from harming our health and climate, NGOs urge the EU

Industrial emissions take a heavy toll on our health, environment and climate, yet current EU laws fail to keep them sufficiently under control. A new petition demands that the EU step up protection, Roberta Arbinolo reports.

The Clean the Industry campaign, launched on 1 February 2021 by a coalition of legal, environmental and health experts, urges the European Commission to strengthen the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), which determines emission ceilings for over 50,000 industrial facilities across the EU, and put a lid on toxic and climate-wrecking emissions.

Manufacturing disaster

From factories to power plants, intensive livestock farming and refineries, the industrial sector is responsible for about a half of the European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions and 75% of hazardous waste production.

Large-scale industrial activities are also a major driver of air pollution, which causes 412,000 premature deaths in Europe every year. Data provided by industry also show that these facilities – most notably coal-fired power plants – release about 4,600 tonnes of heavy metals per year into the air, water and soil, including poisonous arsenic, lead and mercury.

The Industrial Emission Directive aims to reduce emissions, promote resource efficiency and curtail the use of hazardous chemicals by setting standards for different industrial activities – the so called Best Available Techniques (BATs).

However, the directive is not helping to decarbonise industry, while loopholes and exceptions have hampered its capacity to curb toxic emissions and tackle cross-border pollution. This means that industrial operators have been allowed to pollute at dangerous levels, at the expenses of people and nature.

As the European Commission opens a public consultation on updating the directive, campaigners are calling on policymakers to make it fit for the climate fight and a non-toxic environment, and are inviting European citizens to sign the petition and make their voice heard.

Vlatka Matkovic, Senior Health and Energy Officer at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), said:

“The revision of the Industrial Emissions Directive is a not-to-be-missed opportunity for preventing disease and premature deaths, and for delivering on the EU’s climate ambition.”

Christian Schaible, Policy Manager for Industrial Production at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), told META:

“The whole point of the IED is to protect us and our environment from the negative impacts of industrial activities. If the Commission is serious about their zero pollution, circular and carbon neutrality goals, they must redesign its scope, rethink how standards are set, and ensure greater transparency.”

No cap on carbon

Under the European Green Deal, the European Union is committed to reaching climate neutrality by 2050, and last year EU leaders agreed to slash greenhouse gas emission by 55% over the next decade. As industry is one of the most emitting economic sectors, a clean industrial transformation is urgently needed to achieve this goal.

However, the current Industrial Emissions Directive does not address greenhouse gas pollution and climate impacts directly. Instead, the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions is left to the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS), which is the world’s first and largest carbon market, covering covers around 40% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This means that EU governments are not required to set limits on these emissions when issuing environmental permits under the IED, nor are they obliged to set binding energy efficiency standards based on performance for installations covered by the ETS.

With the petition, environmental and climate experts urge the European Commission to include a limit on greenhouse gas emissions from industries in the revised directive. Doreen Fedrigo, Industrial Transformation Policy Coordinator at CAN Europe, told META:

“The IED is a key tool to drive drastic cuts in greenhouse gas and toxic emissions in the industry sector. Including limits on greenhouse gas emissions alongside stricter limits on other industrial emissions will be needed for the EU to honour its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement.”

Dirty dealings

The lack of a cap on industrial carbon emissions is not the only flaw of the Industrial Emission Directive. Breaches, derogations and exceptions to industrial pollution rules on a continental scale are the proof that the current IED is not strict enough.

In Poland, the Pomorzany power plant is still operating after the deadline set by its permit, while authorities turn a blind eye instead of shutting it down.

Germany has just allowed a new coal-fired power plant to go online in Datteln, without questioning the suitability of the technology, nor considering available renewable resources as possible alternatives.

In Slovenia, the national monitoring system produces unrealistic and inaccurate emissions reports, while Bulgarian authorities are by-passing the IED to allow industrial facilities to operate in breach of pollution limits.

In Romania, the fines imposed on coal plant operators for breaking the law are too low to deter violations, while in Taranto, Italy, IED provisions have proven insufficient to protect workers and residents from the catastrophic health impacts of the Ilva steel factory.

More generally, the directive’s excessive flexibility and vague legal obligations leave excessive margins of discretion for national authorities when it comes to granting industrial permits and enforcing the law. This makes the IED slower and less effective at curbing hazardous industrial pollution and protecting people’s health and the environment. Laura Otýpková, a lawyer at Frank Bold, said:

“The current IED is full of loopholes which allow industrial operators to avoid complying with strict rules.”

To remedy these flaws, campaigners demand the revised directive to include new zero-pollution rules for factories and power plants forcing operators to limit their impacts on the air, water and natural resources.

Transparency matters

The petition also calls for more participation and transparency because, in the current IED, industries can easily free-ride.

The Aarhus Convention empowers the public to take part in decision making in environmental matters, to be well informed, and to have access to justice.

However, the stories of breaches and derogations all across the EU are also a sign that the current IED is unfit to guarantee people’s environmental rights. Poor governance of industrial regulation, the lack of appropriate instruments to track progress within the sector and grant transparency, and industry infiltrations in the process to define standards and Best Available Techniques cast a shadow on citizens and civil society’s capacity to access information and promote the public interest.

Otýpková told META:

“The public is often excluded from proper participation and denied access to information on emissions. In the end, the IED seems like a token gesture – its revision is a perfect opportunity to make it the powerful piece of legislation it could be.”

For Schaible, the time has come for the European Commission to introduce adequate monitoring and benchmarking tools allowing the tracking of progress towards the objectives of the European Green Deal. “How does decision makers’ mantra of ‘entering the digital age’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ fit in with the lamentable reality of lack of access to basic environmental performance information on the EU’s biggest industrial activities?” he writes on META.

A jarring example of such barrier to transparency is the lack of a EU centralised environmental database for industrial activities.

The IED require operators of large industrial installations to generate annual compliance reports and to monitor results on environmental performance. It also requires national authorities to make such information available to the public, including operating permits.

However, most member states are failing to disclose crucial information about highly polluting activities, and many are not even meeting the minimum transparency requirements. For its part, the EU has failed to provide adequate access to data generated by industry, and to allow compliance promotion and benchmarking. As a result, EU industry reporting on pollution is far behind the standard practice in some other parts of the world, such as China, the United States, Canada and Mexico.

To help fill the information gap, the European Environmental Bureau launched last year the Industrial Plant Data Viewer, an NGO-powered online tool that shows which facilities are playing by the rules and which are not.

The EEB’s Valentina Weiskopf, who contributed to the development of the database, told META:

“This data should be accessible to everyone, yet all these barriers make it virtually impossible for an individual or a small NGO to obtain it. On the other hand, if we could create this tool inhouse and with limited resources, there is no reason why the European Commission and the European Environment Agency should not be capable of providing an adequate reporting system.”