Legislation: The New Directive on Ambient Air Quality and Cleaner Air for Europe


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Keywords: Public health, pollution control, air quality framework measures, Directive 96/62, Sixth Environmental Action Programme, Clean Air for Europe Programme, Directive 2008/50, zones and agglomerations, limit values and target values, alert thresholds, critical level, information and reporting requirements, UK Air Quality Archive, ozone, action plans, enforcement


The Alkali Act 1863 was a groundbreaking piece of legislation which tackled, head-on, highly damaging acidic atmospheric emissions from an early chemicals industry. It established a professional inspectorate and imposed an ambitious emission limit on atmospheric emissions of hydrochloric acid from such plants. Indeed, provided one has the political will1 and the technical capability,2 stemming the flow of noxious emissions from exhausts and tailpipes is the obvious place to start when seeking to reduce pollution. Ini-tially, the Act achieved spectacular results; as industry increased, however, the reductions were soon cancelled out by the proliferation of new plants.3

This example neatly illustrates the shortcomings of an approach to pollution control that relies solely upon monitoring exhaust pipe emissions. Emission limits are of limited effect unless they are informed by data on the cumulative effect of emissions on the receiving media. The early emission limits placed on the alkali industry took no account of the growth of that particular industry, let alone the host of other polluting industries, many of which escaped the Alkali regime for many years.

Air quality standards focus on the cumulative effect of pollutants from all sources in the atmosphere and, in this respect, form a vital element of any strategic response to the problem of atmospheric pollution. In the UK an early example of a strategic approach to air quality can been seen in the first Clean Air Act 1956,4 which empowered local authorities to declare smoke control areas. This approach was greatly expanded by the Environment Act 1995, which established the national air quality strategy under Part IV. This has provided the vehicle for adopting additional obligations on air quality imposed under European law.5

At the European level there is a clear transboundary dimension to air quality. The EU comprises a high concentration of industrialised nations all situated in close proximity. Airborne pollutants are no respecters of national borders and can be carried for hundreds, and even thousands, of miles. The EU (or EEC in its former life) has been active in the field of atmospheric emissions since the 1970s,6 although its approach was somewhat piecemeal. Certain measures were not really environmental measures at all and were more concerned with harmonising technical standards in the interests of the common market; early tailpipe emission limits on motor cars are a classic example of this.7 Other measures focused on exhaust emissions from particular industrial sectors but did not form part of an integrated approach.8

It was not until the 1990s that the EU instigated a strategy for improving European air quality as a whole. To this end an air quality framework measure, namely Directive 96/62, was promulgated which put in place the means for establishing EU-wide air quality standards in respect of specified substances. Directive 2008/509 on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe (hereinafter referred to as 'the new Air Quality Directive' or 'the AQD') is the first major revision to the original approach. It consolidates a range of measures and adds certain new objectives.

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