Coal pollution limits worse than China - is that the best we can do?

Posted by Lawrence Carter — 5 March 2015 at 9:38am - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: Yang Di / Greenpeace
Some cities in China are notorious for poor air quality

New rules that were supposed to help tackle deadly air pollution in Europe could result in weaker rules than are currently in place in China (notorious for its poor air quality), a Greenpeace investigation has revealed.

The new pollution limits for large industrial plants currently being discussed by the European Union are also several times weaker than what’s already been achieved by the best performing plants in other developed economies, including the US and Japan.

Our investigation further reveals that what EU officials identify as the required ‘best available techniques’ to reduce harmful emissions, would in reality allow several times more toxic pollution than those already adopted by many coal plant operators around the world. In other words, they are not the best available techniques.

This is important, since the process of agreeing new pollution standards was set up to tackle the harmful health impacts of coal and other industrial emitters. Toxic fumes from the EU’s coal-fired power stations caused an estimated 22,300 premature deaths in 2010, with a separate study estimating the total for the UK at a staggering 1,600 per year.

The reason these proposed pollution standards are so weak could be the level of influence that the big polluters have had on the process. Our investigation found that the UK is one of the countries that have most aggressively tried to weaken the proposed limits. And we also found that five members of the UK’s nine-person delegation to the European negotiations are employees of big polluters, including Big Six coal power plant operators E.ON, RWE and EDF.

In fact, over half the working group members across the EU (183 out of 352) are industry lobbyists. And in dozens of cases, members of staff from coal-burning firms are taking part in the process, not as formal industry representatives, but as government delegates appointed by the member states.

Even several of the genuinely independent EU country representatives have been known to regularly advocate the positions of polluting companies and interest groups, often using statements directly copied from industry lobbyists. For instance, a representative of the UK Environment Agency used a written comment identical to ones made by energy lobbyists Eurelectric and RWE to argue that certain energy efficiency techniques were too expensive. We found several other examples of what appears to be copy and paste from industry lobbyists.

This is a classic case of allowing the fox to guard the henhouse - coal companies should be nowhere near these talks. And while David Cameron has rightly committed to phase out unabated coal power stations, this pledge is undermined by the UK delegation’s attempts to water down air pollution standards. Prioritising the profits of big energy companies over the health of tens of thousands like this is simply unacceptable.

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