Nonetheless, coatings producers face the danger that in the absence of action on emissions by the EU, national governments will be taking their own additional measures to control volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other air pollutants.
A new European Commission, the Brussels-based EU executive which took over in November, has signalled that its primary concern is economic recovery.
“Europe needs a kick-start and the Commission is providing the jump leads,” Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the new Commission, told the European Parliament in late November.
The Parliament, which was newly elected in the summer, is also showing itself to be less green than its predecessor.
The Commission has already indicated that it may withdraw a set of proposals for stricter environmental rules put forward by its predecessor. These had yet to be fully debated by the European Parliament and the Council of Minister representing the governments of the EU’s 28 member states. Both bodies have to approve legislation proposed by the Commission before it can be implemented.
Even if the Commission does decide to press ahead with the proposals, which are mainly centered on proposed stricter emissions targets under the existing National Emissions Ceiling Directive (NECD), it is now unlikely to want to bring in more rigorous limits on VOCs.
The coatings industry has already had to comply with two pieces of EU legislation controlling VOC levels. One sets VOCs limits in manufacturing premises and the other restricts the content of volatile organic compounds in decorative paints.
There have been concerns in the industry that the Commission might want to bring in a third piece of VOCs legislation controlling total emissions of volatile compounds (TVOC) and covering small amounts of pollutants and their mixtures.
“The Commission now seems to believe that the coatings industry has already done enough to reduce emissions so that it does not want to make additional requirements on the sector,” said Didier Le Roy, technical director at the European Council of Paint, Printing Ink and Artists’ Colours Industry (Cepe).
Around 75 percent of all decorative paints sold in Europe are now waterborne, while solvent-free coatings have also been making inroads in sectors like automobiles and industrial coatings.
“The modern decorative coatings industry (in Europe) has made huge strides in the last 20 years to reduce emissions through its Coatings Care program,” explained Tom Bowtell, chief executive of the British Coatings Federation. “We have proved that a proactive, responsible industry can achieve real steps forward without regulation. For example, the coatings industry now uses 50 percent less solvents per tonne of production compared to 1996, and we have reduced VOC emissions from our manufacturing facilities by a similar percentage in the same period.”
However, industry representatives are worried about the trend towards individual national or regional governments bringing in their own measures, which may accelerate as the Commission eases up on new emissions regulations.
France, Germany and Belgium have already been introducing their own rules on indoor air quality. Now there is a possibility that others will follow.
“Whilst understanding the concerns about air pollution in major cities, we do not believe that indoor air quality regulations are necessary in the UK for the coatings industry,” said Bowtell. “But if we do end up with regulation, it should be on a pan European basis.”
High levels of pollution in Europe’s large cities has spurred politicians, NGOs and other health and environmental campaigners to put pressure on national governments to do more to comply with existing EU emissions regulations.
Many EU members states are failing to comply with EU emission targets set to be achieved by 2010. These targets are now themselves well below minimum safety levels recently set by the United Nations’ World Health Organisation (WHO).
After legal action by ClientEarth, a campaigning group specializing in environmental law, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which ensures that all EU law is applied in the same way among its member states, ruled in November that the UK government must comply with 2010 limits on air pollution “as soon as possible”.
Now the NGO wants to use its successful action against the UK as a platform for similar law suits against other non-compliant EU governments.
“The ECJ’s ruling provides a clear indication of what the law means by ‘as soon as possible’,” said Alan Andrews, a ClientEarth lawyer. “It has also clearly asserted the responsibility of national courts to hold their governments to account. We are seeking partners across Europe who want to bring cases to protect their right to breathe clear air.”
In response to public concerns about poor air quality, particularly in cities, a growing number of countries could introduce tighter VOC limits, particularly through IAQ measures.
In Germany the existing IAQ regulations, which mainly apply to floor coatings and other coverings, may be extended to all coatings materials used indoors.
The French IAQ legislation requires wall and floor coatings to be labelled with details of the emission characteristics of their volatile pollutants. The labels have to comply with a ranking system indicating the degree of hazard of the contaminants.
In Belgium, an IAQ regulation due to come into force at the beginning of next year does not require labelling of constructions products, including coatings. Instead, their producers or suppliers must have drawn up emission dossiers on them, giving details of TVOCs, carcinogenic substances and inclusion of chemicals like toluene and formaldehyde.
In Scandinavian countries such as Finland and Denmark, the coatings sector has agreed to a voluntary IAQ labelling system, which so far has been working effectively enough for governments not to bring in mandatory schemes.
“One of the concerns about what is happening with indoor air quality at the moment is a patchwork of different regulations across European countries, which for many of our members who are supplying and labelling their products for many markets in Europe, is an unnecessary and expensive burden,” said Bowtell.
A greater decree of uniformity in the application of IAQ measures may be achieved when harmonised standards for testing of VOCs from indoor construction materials, including coatings, is introduced through the Commission in the next one to two years.
“EU member states may take advantage of these standards to introduce their own indoor VOC limits,” said Jorma Sateri, chairman of the Finnish Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate (FiSIAQ) and a member of the working group which has been drawing up the standards. “They ought to benefit coatings manufacturers because they will be able to use the results of single tests to market their products across Europe.”
However, although the test methods are being harmonized, governments and their advisors will continue to be able to make their own assessments of the results of the tests.
“It will require a lot more work at the EU level before there is harmonised agreement on what level of concentrations of VOCs are acceptable,” said Le Roy.