The Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution

The Geneva Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has been in existence for more than 40 years. Since 1979, it has served as a bridge between divergent political systems and a source of stability in times of political change. The Convention is the first multilateral environment agreement worldwide and so far the only international, legally binding instrument for air pollution control. It has been ratified by 51 Parties including the European Union (EU). It is not only a political agreement for international cooperation to combat transboundary air pollution, but also provides a platform for close cooperation between scientists, researchers and policy-makers.

The history of the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution can be traced back to the 1960s, when scientists were first able to prove the effect of sulphur dioxide emissions in central Europe on the acidification of Scandinavian lakes. Studies in the years that followed confirmed that pollutants cause damage even at a great distance from the place of emission. This makes cooperation at international level necessary to mitigate the impacts of air pollution on the environment and human health.

Eight protocols (seven protocols addressing air pollution control and one financing protocol) have been developed on the basis of the Convention.

  • For example, the EMEP Protocol regulates the central analysis of air pol-lution measurement data of all Contracting Parties, the evaluation of emissions data and the model calculations to determine the trans-boundary air pollutant loads and their financing.
  • The 1998 Aarhus Protocol on Heavy Metals committed the Parties to drastically reduce air pollution caused by heavy metals. It was amended in 2012. The global Minamata Convention regulates mercury emissions, including those relevant to air pollution control. The UNECE Convention covers regional emissions and impacts not only of mercury, but also of lead and cadmium.
  • In another protocol (also from 1998), many UNECE countries agreed on measures to lower emissions of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The Protocol was amended in 2009. Since the Stockholm Convention en-tered into force, regulating most of the persistent organic pollutants addressed by the POP Protocol at global level, the UNECE Convention has mainly dealt with taking inventory of POP emissions and measures to reduce the unintentional release of specific POPs (for example, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from burning wood) that are not covered by the Stockholm Convention.
  • The most important protocol to the Convention is the Gothenburg Protocol. It focuses on abating the combined impact of several pollutants on the acidification, eutrophication and ozone and particulate matter emission loads. The Protocol (from 1999, revised in 2012) contains numerous provisions on emissions reduction, monitoring, reporting, etc. as well as national emission ceilings (NECs) and national emission reduction commitments (NERCs) for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC) and fine particulate matter. The National emission reduction commitments, which are binding as of 2020, were incorporated into the EU National Emissions Ceilings Directive (2016/2284). In addition, numerous provisions on the preparation and reporting of emission inventories and projections, impact monitoring, reduction measures in agriculture etcetera were integrated into EU legislation or are applicable in the EU.

The review process for the Gothenburg Protocol will start in 2020 and run until the end of 2022. The review will focus on whether the provisions of the protocol in its current version are appropriate, sufficient and effective in reaching the objectives of the protocol (which have also largely been incorporated in the EU Environment Action Programme).