'No relaxation of EU air quality standards'

7 April 2005

'No relaxation of EU air quality standards'

Measures to improve air quality in the Netherlands must be taken as a matter of urgency or the country will be unable to build anything new. New building projects are routinely cancelled by the Council of State because they would lead to a further deterioration of air quality in an overcrowded land. Secretary of State for the Environment Pieter Van Geel's response is to try to have strict European air quality standards relaxed, but this attempt has now failed, and new thinking is needed.

The EU Directive for the improvement of air quality has been in force since 2001, but this did not stop our political decision-makers from preferring to spend a billion on new asphalt rather than on measures to cut emissions from transport. Secretary of State Pieter Van Geel and transport minister Karla Peijs must come forward with real solutions, now that their lobbying of their EU colleagues has failed to persuade them that they should downgrade standards for particulate pollution.

Krista van VelzenMember of Parliament for the SP Krista van Velzen said, “The Netherlands is one of the most heavily polluted countries in the world. For too long our country's leaders have pointed to the small surface area as an excuse for failing to meet air quality standards. Now that Mr Van Geel has come home with his tail between his legs following the hostile reception of his proposal to relax these standards he is hopefully at last going to do something about the thousands of victims that the poor quality of our air claims each year.”

The Secretary of State was planning to replace the original air quality order with a ministerial regulation which would have been less exacting. Examination of this proposal by both the Council of State and the European Commission led to its refusal, which means that Van Geel can now think again. As Ms Van Velzen says: “The Netherlands is certainly not going to shut up shop! All that's needed are well thought-out plans to improve air quality at both local authority and provincial level. These bodies at the moment lack the tools to do the job.”

Although it is to say the least remarkable that Van Geel had not foreseen the Council of State's judgement, he can now at last get down to drawing up new measures which would not only benefit the environment but also be good for public health. Lowering standards is in any case a nonsense – on the contrary, we need to take a range of new measures, as Van Velzen points out: “In a recent debate the SP presented a ten-point plan to reduce air pollution from transport emissions. I constantly receive ideas for further initiatives from people all over the country, for example

  • Screening off roads from areas where building is taking place, for example with green spaces which, in addition to being pleasant in themselves, act as filters
  • Introduction of phased traffic lights (fewer gear changes and queues mean reduced energy use)
  • Improved public transport
  • Tax-free biofuels
  • Taxation of freight transport per kilometre
  • Increased taxes on diesel

The SP's own ten point plan includes;

  • Abolition of vehicle tax in favour of increased taxes on fuel, so that car use is taxed rather than car ownership.
  • Lowering taxes on less polluting fuels and increasing it on diesel and petrol.
  • Public authorities should set a good example when buying in new vehicles.
  • Minimum fuel consumption standards for all new vehicles.
  • Soot filters to be compulsory on all new diesel cars.
  • Speed limit of 80 kph at accident black spots
  • Buildings for vulnerable groups to be at least 150m from motorways. Where existing buildings fail to conform to this the authorities must co-operate with residents to find acceptable possibilities for alternative housing.
  • Public transport must be encouraged instead of reduced. Cuts must be reversed.
  • Kerosene must be taxed to the same level as petrol.
  • New Dutch ships and trains must fulfill stricter criteria for NOx and SO2 emissions.

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