Innocent people and the environment are paying the price of industry pollution with their health. An Italian town has been suffering the consequences of an environmental crisis for decades. A Bulgarian plant is allowed to pollute by obscuring information. Romanian coal plants benefit from working outside the law. Will EU policymakers ensure protection for people, not polluters?
Maria Luís Fernandes reports.
The Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), the key EU-level legislation to protect communities from pollution, is currently under revision. To protect people and the planet, the EU law for industrial emissions must drive the transformation of industry and prevent its impacts. Strong rules now can help us curb a future of continued damage – what choices will decisionmakers make?
The human cost of pollution
In Southern Italy, there is a coastal town covered in red iron-ore dust – a constant reminder of a decade-old environmental crisis that is still ongoing. A steel plant has turned the town of Taranto into one of Europe’s worst pollution cases. The presence of the plant is the key factor in explaining the below average local life expectancy and the high incidence rate of various illnesses, including cancer, in workers and residents. However, stories of personal loss are contrasted with political inaction. Through continuous derogations, the Italian government allowed the plant to stay open and without any further requirements to reduce pollution and its impact. In addition, the European Commission never truly imposed the EU law for industrial emissions. After a round of infringement procedures, the Commission did not send Italy to the EU Court of Justice.
Taranto is not an isolated case. In Bulgaria, a power plant has been allowed to pollute the country’s air to an unhealthy level. Due to a flawed method to balance environmental harm and economic benefits, the high rates of emissions from this plant have earned it a place in the top 10 for most harmful coal companies in the EU. In the Netherlands, for over a century, a steelmaking factory has been polluting the Dutch IJmond region with carcinogenic and heavy metals knowingly dumped into the surroundings of the installation. Rosignano beach in Tuscany, Italy, has had a similar fate: a chemical factory has been dumping its waste into the sea for over a century.
The good news is, reducing pollution and its harmful effects is still possible in the ongoing revision of the IED. The current framework has shortcomings that have caused harm to communities. If the strictest possible emission limits are applied without any further delay, rejecting transition periods and enforcement flexibilities, the IED has the potential to depollute industry and surrounding environments. The time to act is now.
Vague claims, concrete rules
Companies continue to announce their climate goals and stamp them on products to appease the increasingly environmentally conscious consumer base. But these claims are increasingly in contrast with reality. Companies buy credits from organizations that offset their emissions for them by, for example, stalling deforestation. But an analysis of nearly 100 million carbon credits found that only a fraction of them resulted in real emission reductions. Climate-friendly claims made by companies are appearing more useful for business greenwashing than for the planet.
This remains true even among EU laws. Despite the goal of the Emissions Trading System (ETS) to lower emissions based on a market mechanism, greenhouse gas emissions from the majority of energy-intensive sectors have not decreased over the past decade. The mechanism is not keeping its promise to decarbonise heavy industry in time to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
Self-certified claims made by industry cannot be trusted if the EU is to reach its climate goals in time. A revised IED can support true climate action. Binding transformation plans can help guide individual installations toward climate-neutrality and zero-pollution by 2050. A combined approach with the ETS can achieve higher rates of decarbonisation through complementarily using market and regulatory tools. As it stands, the IED is not fulfilling its potential to drive down pollution and carbon emissions at a structural level.
In summer 2018, the Bulgarian Executive Environmental Agency decided coal power plants in the country would get a derogation on their defined emission limits. Representing citizens, several civil society organizations requested access to the documents used to make this decision. The request was denied. The environmental organisations wanted to ensure they had early and effective opportunities to participate in the decision-making process. Two national court decisions have confirmed that the documents should have been available to the public. The Executive Environmental Agency has, to this date, denied access to these documents.
Paroșeni, Govora and Turceni. Next door to the Bulgarian case, these are three coal plants in Romania which have operated without an IED permit in the past and continue to do so. They operate outside of the law because it is financially beneficial – the fines are some of the lowest in Europe for disregarding the law. If industrial installations do not respect rules, they can be penalised; yet these fines are often neither proportionate nor dissuasive. In Romania, permit breaches are sanctioned with fines up to only 20,000€, which can be cut in half with a mere timely payment. Penalties can be even lower if the industry operator does not obtain an IED permit at all. Fines this low are not sufficient to discourage operators from breaching even the most basic IED obligations.
As Europe redefines its industry law, citizens’ rights need to be assured. The updated IED should enforce effective fines and ensure more rights to citizens and civil society to bring polluters to court when they fail to comply with the law, as well as the timely and effective opportunity to participate in decision-making.
Protecting people and planet
All around Europe, stories tell us the reality of people dealing with the consequences of industry behaviour. Policymakers can make the IED protect the environment and public health while providing legal certainty to industry and incentivising clean and forward-looking techniques. Now is the moment to commit to a plan for pollution prevention that works both for human and environmental protection.