New EU regulations, approved Friday by member states, will force power plants to reduce their emissions of toxic pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, mercury, sulphur dioxides, and particulate matter.

European Commission spokesman Enrico Brivio said “air pollution is the prime environmental cause of premature death in the European Union.” NGOs said the emissions reductions from coal-fired plants alone could save as many as 20,000 lives annually.

46 percent of sulphur dioxide emissions, 18 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions, and 39 percent of mercury emissions in Europe come from large combustion plants.

The EU emissions directive, which entered into force in 2011, sets limits on emissions across the EU, on pollutants that lead to respiratory diseases. It has been criticized for exemptions that have allowed more than half of coal plants in Europe to exceed limits on harmful pollutants. One plant in Wales, for example, was found to have been emitting more double the amount of nitrogen oxide that should  have been allowed.

The new rules were celebrated by environmental groups, but EU countries such as Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, and the Czech Republic, which rely heavily on coal, were opposed to the changes.

World Wildlife Fund senior energy policy officer Darek Urbaniak said:

“EU coal power plants will now either have to reduce their pollution or close down. It is about time Europe quits its dirty coal addiction for good and invests in energy efficiency and renewables instead.”

In heavily coal dependent countries like Bulgaria, there has been concern that the new, stricter regulations will force some plants to close down entirely, or that it might drive up electricity prices. Brivio countered these fears, saying “the European law does not require the closure of Bulgarian plants and will not increase the price of electricity.”

National authorities in EU member states will be able to opt for a derogation, a version of an exemption, if costs are proven to be disproportionate to environmental benefits, according to Brivio. Environmental safeguards would still need to be respected in these instances.

The new limits will affect the EU’s 2,900 large combustion plants, which includes coal-fired power stations as well as peat, oil, and gas power plants.

The new standards must be met by 2021.

The World Health Organization estimated last year that air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths annually, with outdoor air pollution having frown 8 percent over the last 5 years.

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