Mythbusting the Industrial Emissions Directive

Myths perpetuated by industry abound on the key pollution legislation – ahead of its revision, it is time to bust these myths and cut pollution at the source.

The Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) is a key piece of European Union legislation on pollution, regulating around 50,000 industrial installations in Europe. It was meant to achieve a high-level of protection for the health of humans and the environment but despite its strong potential, EU Member States and industry have used broad interpretations and exploited loopholes to shirk their responsibilities. 

Myths abound 

The IED is up for review and, ahead of the expected proposal from the European Commission at the beginning of April, some discussions (even with heavy industry presence) have shown promise. This includes clamping down on flexibility abuse by requiring permits to be aligned to strict levels; restricting the discretion of national authorities to allow lax requirements; the deletion of an article limiting permit writers setting greenhouse gas emission limits; and binding energy efficiency requirements.

Industry wants to promote the falsehood that the IED is fit for purpose and needs marginal change, a myth that is costing us the environment, the climate and our health. It’s high time the Commission matches its words with real action, through an ambitious revision that prioritises pollution prevention at source over industry profits ” said Christian Schaible, Policy Manager for Industrial Production at the European Environmental Bureau. 

Many myths abound on the IED, circulated by industry and not at all reflective of the Directive’s actual efficacy. 

At this critical moment in the fight for meaningful climate and environmental action, it is more important than ever to bust these myths and beef up the IED to kick pollution at its source. 

Let’s get mythbusting!

Myth 1 – The IED should only be for emissions to air and water 

Many industry players like to focus on the title of the IED, while conveniently forgetting that its full name is the Directive on Industrial emissions (integrated pollution prevention and control). So, its goal is what is says on the tin: the integrated prevention and control of pollution and its negative impacts arising from industrial activities.  

This means that the Directive goes beyond just emissions of pollutants to also encompass resource use, hazardous chemicals, and the prevention of other negative impacts to the environment at all stages of industrial activities. The future of the IED must respect this by guiding industry with forward-looking targets to a swift transition to the zero-pollution ambition of the EU Green Deal. 

Myth 2 – Climate protection is not the IED’s job 

Industry has objected to the IED being used to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonisation, pointing to the EU’s Emission Trading System (ETS). They switch up their arguments, saying that it would be unnecessary double regulation or that the ETS is more cost effective.  

The truth is that climate action should not be dictated by cost effectiveness or business desires – instead it should be guided by climate science and emboldened by the shrinking time left for action.  

Waiting for the market to drive decarbonisation is a losing game, whereas an approach using performance standards for all air pollution prevention will speed up decarbonisation. The car industry sets a good example, with its impending phaseout of internal combustion engines by 2035 brought about not by the ETS, but rather by regulatory standards.

What’s more, the ETS has its own loopholes that allow industry to dine out on free pollution limits.

The IED should take over from market forces and have performance based standards to push the switch away from combustion-based technologies by the most effective means of production. If external costs are not being internalised, then the “business case” is naught but a myth!  

Myth 3 – Water protection is good enough 

While the IED in its current form has seen some positive impacts on emissions to water and water use, waste waters from agriculture, alongside urban and industrial activities, remain one of the top pressures on EU water bodies.  

Meanwhile, reductions in wastewater from chemical industry have also been insufficient, with the European Environment Agency having assessed that only 38% of EU water bodies have a “good” chemical status.  

The provisions of the IED must go further: currently, an evaluation found that only 145 out of 850 of total Best Available Techniques (BAT) conclusions (reference documents under the Directive for preventing or minimising emissions and environmental impacts) cover emissions to water.

Only 20 BAT conclusions promote reducing water use, with 19 being of no legal value as they only set generic techniques rather than performance ranges. Meanwhile, a lack of information on resource use hides the real water usages of industrial activities.

Myth 4 – Permit writers need flexibility

Another fiction is that flexibility for permit writers helps to better prevent pollution at the source and that the IED provisions are sufficiently robust to honour environmental quality standards.

The fact is that permit writers have systematically aligned to the least strict pollution levels allowed by the large ranges set by EU reference documents, effectively declawing the Directive. Setting stricter permit requirements is the exception rather than the rule – and its peoples’ health that bear the cost, literally.

The EEB has calculated the avoidable health costs of key pollutants from coal combustion when comparing their actual emissions with what they would be if the strictest limits were enforced. Topping the list for these costs are Germany (€12.4 billion), Poland (€10.8 billion) and the Czech Republic (€8.2 billion).   

Combined with rogue derogations given by Member States, this means an enormous number of avoidable pollutants have made and continue to make their way into Europe’s air, waters and soils. The danger of derogations is especially evident in how they have contributed to the pollution of EU waters with mercury from coal combustion.

Myth 5 – Industry data transparency and reporting are fit for purpose  

Industry voices claim that the European Pollution Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) already balances the right level of detail and complexity for citizen accessibility, wailing that improvements would incur administrative and financial burdens without discernible public benefit.  

These wails are without cause however: current transparency on industrial emissions data is woefully insufficient. To help fill the gaps in the EU’s reporting system, the EEB has developed its own Industrial Plant Data Viewer.

Industry seems to be worried about greater transparency, perhaps as it would make mythbusting too easy! Better access to data, permits and compliance information is essential to hold industry and permit writers to account and to be able to compare pollution prevention efforts. A harmonised process and a centralised EU data portal would leave industry no where to hide, while improving effort sharing would make Member States more accountable to the public.

Myth 6 – Fostering resource efficiency would hamper innovation 

The IED has the potential to help foster greater resource efficiency and promote the transition to a circular economy – but only if binding environmental performance levels are set.  

A big myth industry pushes on this is that such binding levels should remain indicative, otherwise they would hamper innovation and the production of advanced products that tend to be energy intensive. 

Surprise, surprise, this claim is also largely false. In fact, any innovations for advanced products should also be as energy efficient as possible, which alongside greater resource efficiency and material circularity would help mitigate the environmental impacts of industry. The IED can achieve this by setting minimum requirements for circularity and requiring resource efficiency to be built in by design.  

Myths busted!

Europe is at a turning point in the crises of environment and climate. There is no more time to lose – these busted myths should be put to rest and the EU needs a truly ambitious IED revision to achieve its objectives on climate neutrality and zero pollution.