Industrial emissions portal: is pollution prevention ready for the digital age?

Industry must follow environmental rules – but do we truly know how they are doing? Environmental performance reporting is outdated and ineffective. However, the Industrial Emissions Portal Regulation can be the solution. The new portal is key to cutting the administrative burden and throwing pollution prevention tools into the digital age.

Maria Luís Fernandes and Christian Schaible report.

Climate neutrality, a toxic-free environment and zero pollution ambition – the EU Green Deal contains various forward-thinking objectives. Likewise, we keep hearing companies claiming to want to be carbon neutral, clean, sustainable, etc., etc. – you name it. But a statement means nothing without concrete action. There is a need for tools which can track the efforts made to ensure those objectives become a reality. And an EU-wide database that consolidates the basic environmental performance data of Europe’s largest industrial activities could be the answer.  

The EU has called for a twin transition, combining an environmental protection pathway with digital progress. However, these objectives must work together to obtain the best possible outcome for the public good. Benchmarking and promoting compliance with justifiable levels of pollution is essential for environmental protection and it’s vital that citizens can gain access to such information. This is only possible if European policymakers enter the digital age. The ongoing review of the Regulation establishing the Industrial Emissions Portal (IEP-R) could be part of the answer – here is why and how. 

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t 

As industry performs their activities, they are bound to EU regulation and must report on their compliance with it. Currently, reporting is regulated by the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) and by the Regulation establishing the Industrial Emissions Portal (IEP-R). Currently, these two regulations operate in parallel. This means the data collected is not used to its fullest potential and can be hard to compare. For example, in the Portal levels of pollution is provided in tonnes, but standards under the IED are mostly expressed in concentrations. This prevents data for similar activities from being easily comparable at Union level, extra calculations are needed. Wouldn’t it be better if it could be done in just a few clicks? All this makes it harder to clarify whether industrial actors have actually taken sufficient action prevent pollution at source. 

In addition, information is not put in context. It is difficult for citizens to understand the scale of pollution and the health hazards to which they might be exposed. They might also have a language barrier when it comes to cross-country screening. Therefore, it might be harder for citizens to enforce their rights. Citizens must have easy and direct access to information.  

Resistance to the digital age of pollution prevention is paradoxical. Authorities and industry complain about administrative burdens when dealing with reporting and paperwork hassle. At the same time, they resist the digitalisation of permitting and compliance related procedures and compliance reporting – which would reduce administrative burden. Likewise, industry opposes an EU digital database with ‘nothing to hide’ declarations about their environmental performance. However, there is almost an obsession around confidential business information, ensuring data access does not become mandatory through EU regulation.  

Time for an action plan 

So, why is it important to report on environmental performance? More than extending our knowledge on pollution related problems, it is important to share information that can help create solutions for preventing pollution at source. The industrial emissions portal is a key instrument in achieving this goal. 

As EU decision makers review the IEP-R, it’s time for action plan focused on bringing pollution prevention into the digital age.  

Currently, operators of activities regulated by the Industrial Emissions Directive have to provide an annual report. This allows to check if they are complying with the pollution limits assigned to them. The environmental performance system should allows to compare the ambition level with reference benchmarks as well, such as the limits permitted by the best available techniques of pollution prevention. Industrial actors should be required to directly log this information on a digital portal so that verification and comparison within countries and industry sectors can occur.   

Reporting should provide an honest picture of the pollution status quo. All the polluting substances that are listed in EU rules should be part of this portal, such as ‘forever chemicals’. In addition, some pollutants have a “relevance thresholds”, meaning that up to a certain level it is not mandatory to report on them. In these situations, certain operators will report a value of 0, which is not true. For some pollutants the reporting thresholds are extreme – for example, a concerning 10kg for mercury.   

By digitising performance data, we would have a much more accurate picture of industrial pollution. Accurate information would level the environmental playing field and make data more accessible and useful for various users, including industry itself. 

Pollution prevention fit for the digital age 

The Portal, as created by the IEP-R, can become the ideal tool for collecting all the required environmental performance data and making it available in one place. What’s more, it will not generate new reporting obligations, which would lead to more administrative burden, but by providing a more effective way to collect and use information. Now is the opportunity to make better use of current reporting requirements, improve knowledge sharing on pollution prevention efforts and ensure public accountability.   

These topics will also be discussed at our annual conference Our common future: for a European Green Deal 2  on Monday 8 May in Stockholm and online – more info and the link to register is available on our conference website . Join us there!