Fine Particles, Black Carbon May Be Added To Controlled Pollutants Under Air Convention

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Amendments to Gothenburg Protocol

Key Development: Fine particulate matter and black carbon could be added to the list of pollutants controlled under the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution.

What's Next: Amendments approved by the treaty's Executive Body would enter into force when two-thirds of the parties to the protocol--17 out of 26 countries--ratify them.

By Jenny Johnson  

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia--Fine particulate matter and black carbon could be added to the list of pollutants controlled under the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, under amendments approved by the treaty's Executive Body May 4.

The United States, Europe, Russia, and other parties under the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe also agreed on flexibility mechanisms for Eastern European states and tighter emissions ceilings for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and volatile organic compounds.

The Geneva meeting to decide on amendments to the convention's Gothenburg Protocol was a special session, as the parties did not reach agreement at a previous meeting in December (35 INER 48, 1/4/12).

Amendments to the protocol would enter into force when two-thirds of the parties to the protocol--17 out of 26 countries--ratify them, a process that could take a couple years.

Air Pollution, Climate Change Addressed.

The treaty's Secretariat considers the addition of black carbon, or soot, to be breaking new ground in air pollution policy.

“For the first time, we have an international agreement that acknowledges the link between air pollution and climate change,” European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potocnik said in a May 7 statement. “By agreeing to regulate one of the contributors to climate change, 'Black Carbon,’ we will see positive impacts at both local and international levels.”

Black carbon is composed of fine particles produced from the incomplete combustion of diesel fuel, wood, crop waste and other biomass, oil, refuse, and in some cases coal. Evidence indicates that black carbon contributes to climate change by warming the atmosphere and by darkening the surface of snow and ice, speeding melting.

However, parties did not commit to specific reductions of black carbon.

National inventories must first be developed based on guidelines to be set by the Executive Body, the Secretariat told BNA May 7. Countries will have significant flexibility in compiling the inventories.

“Each party should to the extent it considers appropriate develop and maintain inventories and projections for emissions of black carbon using guidelines adopted by the Executive Body,” the new text of the protocol reads, according to the Secretariat.

The text calls says parties “should give priority” to black carbon when implementing measures to control particulate matter, the Secretariat said.

A variety of countries, including the United States, earlier this year formed a coalition to curb black carbon and other “short-lived” pollutants linked to global climate change (see related story).

U.S. Could Adopt EU Goals.

Regarding commitments to lower emissions of specific pollutants, the Secretariat said in a May 4 statement that “the United States provisionally indicated that it is aiming for a level of ambition similar to that of the EU, with respect to its reduction commitments.”

The European Union as a whole committed to a 59 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide, a 42 percent reduction in nitrogen dioxide, a 28 percent reduction in volatile organic compounds, and a 22 percent reduction in fine particulate matter (PM-2.5, or particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter) from 2005 levels by 2020, according to the Secretariat. The European Union’s commitment to reduce ammonia emissions 6 percent remains unchanged.

The parties agreed to prioritize reconsideration of changes to the ammonia annex while recommitting to reduce the pollutant by already-agreed measures. Ammonia is a key component of reactive nitrogen, which can have major effects on water, soil, and climate, according to recent studies.

Negotiations on ammonia had been particularly tense, and the Executive Body appears to have accepted a proposal by the Swiss delegation to revisit the issue as soon as possible (35 INER 279, 3/28/12).

Flexibility for Eastern Europe.

Another key development in the revision of the Gothenburg Protocol is the introduction of flexibility mechanisms for the Eastern European, Caucasus, and Central Asian countries, which are working to become parties. The countries, including Russia, have been active in shaping revisions to the protocol, and a key demand of theirs has been the introduction of such mechanisms.

The measures “took considerable time to negotiate,” the Secretariat said in the interview.

As a result, the countries will receive an extended grace period for meeting the emissions limits in the protocol.

For new sources, the countries may request an additional year. For existing stationary sources, the countries can request up to 15 years of additional time to implement the emissions limits. For mobile sources, fuels, and volatile organic compounds in products, the countries can request up to five years of additional time.

“This is a big achievement of the convention. More or less for new sources we will have universally in the UNECE region a set of standards or emission limits throughout the whole region,” the Secretariat said. “There is no distinction between developed [economies] and economies in transition for new sources.”

The Secretariat added that the Russian delegation has indicated it will join the Gothenburg Protocol as soon as possible and that there are no obstacles in the way of ratification by Russia, as it supports the newly adopted amendments.


More information on national emission reduction commitments for EU countries and others under the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution is available at http://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/press/pr2012/GothenburgProtocol_Table_Eng.pdf.

More information on the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution is available at http://www.unece.org/env/lrtap.