Change in the air: Promising direction for air convention protocol revision

The 41st session of the UNECE Air Convention saw the winds blowing in the right direction for a revision of the Gothenburg Protocol – but more must be done to better protect the health of people and the environment from agricultural air pollution.

On 6-8th December, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) held the 41st session of the Executive Body for the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, also known as the Air Convention.

The main international legal framework for limiting, progressively reducing and preventing air pollution, the Air Convention counts more than 50 countries as parties, including the EU, Canada, the United States, and several other European and Central Asian countries. Since its entry into force in 1983, the Air Convention has been extended by eight specific protocols.

The Gothenburg Protocol: a moment for change

The 1999 Gothenburg Protocol to Abate Acidification, Eutrophication and Ground-level Ozone covers five of the main air pollutants: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate matter (PM2.5). The Protocol was revised in 2012 to include the national emission reduction commitments that need to be achieved by 2020 and beyond, while the EU’s own National Emission Ceilings Directive builds upon it further.

The Gothenburg Protocol was a point of discussion at the 41st Air Convention session, with its review currently underway set to be a milestone in the evolution of the Convention in the years to come.

The sheer gravity of the current air pollution situation in Europe and beyond calls for a revision of the Gothenburg Protocol that establishes a very high level of ambition. It is not acceptable that air pollution will continue to cause several hundreds of thousands of premature deaths among European citizens each year, and that millions of hectares of sensitive ecosystems will still be exposed to damaging levels of pollutant depositions.  

Addressing agriculture

Last week, the 41st session of the Executive Body of the Convention adopted new guidance on additional measures to cut PM2.5 and black carbon (BC) emissions from agricultural waste burning. Guidance to cut these emissions from residential wood burning had already been adopted in 2019.

It is promising that the Air Convention addresses air pollutant emissions from the agricultural sector. From an EU perspective, emissions from agricultural waste burning are not as relevant as elsewhere in the world. However, the EU’s agricultural sector is responsible for 93% of ammonia (NH3) emissions, which are an important precursor to elevated particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations.

A new assessment report on ammonia was presented and discussed at last week’s meeting, which found that in order to avoid damage to ecosystems and health, a 30-50% reduction in ammonia emissions is required in areas with high livestock densities and nitrogen fertiliser use.

In Europe, mean ground-level ozone concentrations are increasing, and efforts to reduce ozone precursor gases, in particular methane, must therefore be stepped up. As agriculture accounts for more than half of the total methane emissions in the EU, it is necessary to prioritise mitigation measures in this sector.

Methane emissions are not yet directly regulated, neither by climate protection legislation nor by the Gothenburg Protocol. Last week’s meeting of the Air Convention agreed to include methane in its analysis for the revision of the Protocol, which is a promising first step for including methane in the protocol in the future.

However, actions to reduce methane are urgently needed as these would benefit not only air quality but also climate change mitigation. The new IPCC report highlighted this by showing that methane is responsible for about 0.5°C of the 1.1°C of the overall global heating.  

Revising the Gothenburg Protocol for people and planet

It is more important than ever to arrive quickly to a revised and strengthened Gothenburg Protocol that works for both the health of people, the environment and climate. This would include the introduction of a long-term vision of zero pollution, with binding national emission reduction commitments for 2030 and beyond to reach this vision.

The Gothenburg Protocol must continue to be based on the multi-pollutant and multi-effect approach, taking into account the mixing of and interactions between pollutants. It should also expand to bump up the number of pollutants covered from the current five to eight, adding methane (CH4), black carbon (BC) and mercury (Hg).

Sectors that are lagging behind in reducing their emissions also need to be targeted, which includes agriculture, as well as residential solid-fuel burning and international shipping. Finally, a mechanism for review and revision is needed to ensure that indicative reduction commitments become binding.

Together with DUH, FNE and the Lake Constance Foundation, the EEB has launched the ‘Clean Air Farming‘ project to help reduce ammonia and methane emissions from agriculture. The Project Clean Air Farming (LIFE17 GIE/DE/610 Air & Agriculture) is co-financed by the LIFE-Programme of the European Commission.

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