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Denmark disputes ‘highly unfair’ air pollution limits on agriculture

Copenhagen voted against an EU decision to endorse an amendment to the Gothenburg Protocol on transboundary air pollution, saying it is being unfairly penalised for having taken early action to reduce ammonia emissions from its agriculture sector.

Being virtuous isn’t always a paying tactic when it comes to EU-level negotiations. For more than forty years, Denmark has taken a leadership role in tackling air pollution, taking early action to reduce emissions of ammonia from agriculture.

Now, the Scandinavian country believes it is being punished for being too successful.

Environment ministers from the 28 EU member states adopted on Monday (17 July) an amendment to the 1999 Gothenburg Protocol to reduce emissions of air pollutants globally.

But Copenhagen voted against the EU Council decision, saying it was “highly unfair” to Denmark.

“Denmark has at an early point initiated important efforts to reduce ammonia emissions from the agricultural sector. Furthermore, for many years Denmark had higher requirements for the reduction of ammonia than many other member states. Danish agriculture has thus consistently over the years delivered higher reductions than other member states,” the Danish delegation said in a statement attached to the Council decision, adopted on Monday.

“Against this background Denmark finds that the Gothenburg Protocol reduction target for Denmark on ammonia on 24% by 2020 compared to 2005 is highly unfair,” the statement added, saying Copenhagen will vote against the EU decision to endorse the revised Gothenburg Protocol.

The EU adopted new legislation last year aimed at halving air pollution-related deaths by 2030, with a revised National Emission Ceilings Directive. Nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2), ammonia (NH3) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were all targeted under the revised directive, which also obliges EU member states to cut exposure to fine dust particles (PM 2.5).

An initial version of the revised directive also contained new emission limits for methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. But after extensive lobbying from the agricultural sector, no limits were placed on methane emissions, a large proportion of which are generated by animals, like cow burps.

Agricultural air pollution comes mainly in the form of ammonia, which enters the air as a gas from heavily fertilised fields and livestock waste. It is instantly recognisable by its pungent smell.

Under the revised Protocol, the EU must reduce its emissions for 2020 as follows: sulphur dioxide -59%, nitrogen oxides -42%, ammonia -6%, volatile organic compounds -28%, and fine particulate matter -22%. The effort is then subsequently shared between EU countries, with Denmark required to reduce ammonia emissions by 24%.

However, Denmark believes it must reduce ammonia emissions “disproportionately more” than other EU countries. “This is the reason why Denmark in 2016 voted against the adoption of the National Emission Ceilings Directive containing the same reduction target,” the Danish delegation said.

The revised NEC directive has more ambitious reduction targets from 2030 onwards: sulphur dioxide -79%, nitrogen oxides -63%, ammonia -19%, volatile organic compounds -40%, and fine particulate matter -49%.

Denmark played fair, however, and accepted defeat, saying it “intends to remain loyal to the EU ambition” on curbing air pollution and “intends to accept the [Gothenburg] protocol on behalf of Denmark”.

The righteous will never be uprooted.

Background

Air pollution is considered as the number one environmental cause of death in the EU, leading to about 400,000 premature deaths each year due to elevated levels of fine particles and ozone, according to the European Commission.

European air quality laws are being flouted in more than 130 cities across 23 of the 28 EU member states, the European Commission found in a report published in February 2017.

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