Europe tries to find common ground for battle to clean up air

The fight against industrial air pollution in Western Europe has entered a new phase, but the battle still promises to be long and difficult. Environment ministers from the 10 European Community countries took their first collective step in this field last month, approving legislation that commits governments to adopt strict pan-European emission standards for specific air pollutants.

Those limits - on sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and other sources of acid rain - will be worked out in negotiations within the Community over the next few months and years.

''It shows we're seriously committed to future joint action in the field,'' the French state secretary for the environment, Huguette Bouchardeau, told journalists. She presided over the EC meeting in March.

But even before the meeting ended, officials were stressing it would not be easy to set pan-European limits.

William Waldegrave, who represented the United Kingdom, said Britain was not prepared to accept the EC Commission's proposal that SO2 and NOx emissions be cut by as much as 60 percent by 1995. That would cost British industry about (STR)2.5 billion ($3.75 billion) in capital investment and another (STR)500 million ($750 million) a year in added operating expenses.

A study ordered by the European Commission found controlling SO2 emissions alone on the scale proposed would cost some $4.6 billion to $6.7 billion annually, with benefits of $500 million to $3.5 billion. Up to one-half of those benefits would be in the form of reduced damage to buildings - hardly something to rally industry support.

The British position is certain to be crucial to the negotiations because of Britain's political weight within the EC and its overall contribution to the problem.

A recent report by the environmental group Friends of the Earth pointed out that the United Kingdom was Western Europe's ''largest emitter'' of sulfur dioxide and a net contributor to a ''serious problem in several countries.''

The organization said pollutants from Britain, carried by prevailing westerly winds, made up 7 percent of the pollution in West Germany, 7 percent in Norway, and 14 percent in Sweden.

Britain argues it has already cut SO2 emissions by more than 80 percent since the early 1960s. Further cuts could jeopardize the British economy's chances for sustained recovery, the government contends.

Concerned about acid rain's effects on its forests, West Germany has been pressing other EC member countries to move more quickly in setting common limits on industrial air pollution. It recently lowered its own national limits for sulfur dioxide emissions from large power plants.

The Netherlands, too, appears to be in no mood to await action on a Community-wide basis.

Dr. B.C.J. Zoeteman, an official in the Dutch Environment Ministry, said, ''In a word, we're completely revising our equivalent of the US Clean Air Act.'' He said SO2 emissions should eventually be lowered to 250,000 tons a year, about half what they are today.

Experts point out that the problem - and the search for solutions - is not confined to Western Europe. They suggest more East-West cooperation may be crucial.

Poland recently announced it was joining East Germany and Czechoslovakia in a program to combat the effects of acid rain on their forests.

In Central Europe, East Germany has the highest level of SO2 emissions (followed by Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and the United Kingdom, according to the Berlin-based International Institute for the Environment and Society).

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