Once-in-a-generation chance to depollute EU industry

It takes 25 years – a whole generation – to transform an industrial sector and all the value chains. As EU policymakers review key pollution prevention rules, a unique window of opportunity to depollute industry is closing now. Bold action is needed to enact pollution prevention that works for people and the environment.

The Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) is the instrument with more transformative potential for the European industry.

This key piece of EU legislation aims at preventing pollution at source and achieving a high level of protection for environmental and human health. It accounts for 20% of the EU’s overall pollutant emissions into the air, 20% of pollutant emissions into water, and approximately 40% of greenhouse gas emissions. The costs associated with pollution traced back to industrial and commercial activities raise to hundreds of billions. 

Since its very beginning, the IED framework was found to be ineffective. Excess flexibility led to abuses and loopholes exploited by industry and Member States and bypassing of strict enforcement of best possible performance achievable. 

The revised IED proposal is not yet fit for cleaning up industrial production and generating transformative change towards circular, decarbonised and zero-pollution industry, as the EEB pointed out. It does not address greenhouse gas emissions, hazardous chemicals, resource efficiency or circular economy measures.  New activities such as intensive cattle rearing and mining activities are included but lack concrete pollution prevention measures. 

It is more important than ever to boost pollution prevention to protect human and environmental health. If Europe’s climate goals are to be achieved by 2050, the IED must drive the transformation of the industrial process and its impact on people and the environment.

State-of-the-art pollution prevention

Industrial emissions levels are set by EU states within range established via the Best Available Techniques (BAT) used in EU-based installations. From 75% to 85% of times, industrial installations are allowed to emit the highest amount of pollution. Moreover, key resource efficiency standards stipulated in the Best Available Techniques (BAT)-Conclusions are largely ignored.

If the strictest possible emission and performance limits were applied, the IED would have the potential to depollute our industries and surrounding environments. Such limits should be established on the basis of the most effective pollution prevention techniques and derogations should only be dependent on technical feasibility, not economic factors.

Embracing carbon neutrality  

The vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions of industrial installations have not decreased in the last decade. This shows that the Emissions Trading System (ETS) is not keeping its promise to decarbonise heavy industry in time to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

The IED is an opportunity to help the EU emissions market deliver its promise. If the two directives were to be combined, higher rates of decarbonisation could be achieved. As it stands, the IED misses its chance – public authorities cannot set binding greenhouse gas emission limits to industrial installations covered by the ETS .

Close to 75% of the EU coal-based steel capacity will reach its limits and require major investments by the end of this decade. Industry players will have to make key decisions in the next few years that will decide the fate of the EU carbon-neutrality goals. The walls should go down to embrace carbon neutrality through a combined approach of a strong emissions market with performance-based standards enabled by the IED.

No more tricks

The Sevilla Process brings together Member States, industry and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) representatives to define Best Available Techniques (BATs) for industrial sectors. However, this participatory mechanism is biased.

There is an over-representation of industry trade associations. Compared to the tens industry representatives attending these negotiations, there is usually only one voice from civil society defending the public interest. Lack of data, shielded by industry behind Confidential Business Information (CBI) claims, further prevents effective civil society action. Even more, the range of pollution levels allowed by BATs, even the strict levels, are set on the basis of backwards looking data and a slow process that takes on average 10 years to enforce the pollution limits. 

Unfortunately, the Sevilla process is not the science-based and transparent decision-making mechanism, liberated from any conflict of interest, that it should be. A forward-looking approach to BAT determination process needs to be built.

For people and the environment

Policymakers can make the IED a piece of legislation serving the environment and public health protection while providing legal certainty to industry and incentivising investment in clean and forward-looking techniques.

Strengthening this key policy tool will not only help fulfill the EU’s climate and environmental targets but also greatly reduce the dependency on fossil fuels and promote cutting-edge industry players.  

EU decision-makers have the chance to demonstrate their commitment to the EU Green Deal ambitions by supporting a plan for pollution prevention that works both for human and environmental protection.