Despite limited available data on noise exposure, an estimated 20% of the European Union’s population suffers from noise levels considered to be unacceptable by scientists. An additional 40% of citizens are living in so-called “grey areas” with noise levels causing serious annoyance during the daytime. Action to reduce noise has had a lower priority than that taken to address other environmental problems, such as air and water pollution. Before the late 1990s, community environmental noise policy had essentially consisted of legislation fixing maximum sound levels for vehicles, airplanes and machines. This was driven by the single-market goal, or to implement international agreements in the case of aircraft.
The first regulatory activity of the EU against noise was a directive issued in 1970 focused on the limitation of noise emissions from motorised road vehicles. Amendments with lower noise limits and further directives for other noise sources followed. Thanks to this legislation and to technological progress, the noise from individual cars has been reduced by 85% since 1970, and that from lorries by 90%. An aircraft footprint made by a modern plane has been reduced by a factor of nine compared with an aircraft of the 1970s. However, the growth and spread of traffic in space and time and the development of leisure activities and tourism have partly offset the technological improvements. For some sources, such as railways and a wide range of noisy equipment used outdoors, there are no community or international standards setting emission limits. A number of Member States are planning national legislation for these products, which could cause problems for the functioning of the single market.
The 1993 Fifth Action Programme started to remedy this and included a number of basic targets for noise exposure to be reached by the year 2000, while the recent proposal on the review of the Fifth Action Programme, COM(95)647, announces the development of a noise abatement programme for action to meet these targets.
In 1999 the Council adopted a strategy on the integration of Environment in the Transport Policy in which the problem of noise from road, rail and air transport is identified as one of the most urgent. The communication on Air Transport and Environment contains recommendations for the harmonisation of noise indicators and assessment methods for aircraft noise and to the forthcoming framework directive on environmental noise.
Categories of noise
So far, legislation on environmental noise has been divided into two major categories – namely, EU legislation on noise emission by products (cars, trucks, aircraft and industrial equipment), essentially market access laws for type testing of conformity, and Member State legislation on allowable noise levels in the domestic environment. In principle, these approaches are complementary, and the combination should produce a good result. In order to improve the situation, the Commission has suggested a new framework for future action starting with: “A proposal for a directive providing for the harmonisation of methods of assessment of noise exposure and the mutual exchange of information. The proposal could include recommendations for noise mapping and provision of information on noise exposure to the public. In a second stage consideration could be given to the establishment of target values and the obligation to take action to reach the targets.” In this context, a new directive on the assessment and management of environmental noise was adopted in June 2002. It applies to environmental noise to which humans are exposed – in particular, near hospitals and other noise-sensitive buildings and areas. Its transposition is based on the shared responsibility of the EU and the Member States, as some aspects are best covered at EU level and others at national and local levels. The key elements of the environmental noise directive are: assessment of environmental noise (common noise indicators, common assessment methods, strategic noise mapping of major agglomerations, roads, railways and airports), reducing noise where necessary, maintaining environmental noise quality where it is good, information for the public (” … to increase public awareness concerning noise”), information on noise maps and action plans.
An EC summary report is produced every five years detailing common noise indicators and methods. Strategic noise maps for agglomerations place a special emphasis on the noise emitted by road and rail traffic, airports and industrial activity sites, including ports. Strategic noise maps present data on the following aspects: existing, previous or predicted noise situations in terms of a noise indicator, exceeding a limit value, estimated number of dwellings, schools and hospitals in a certain area that are exposed to specific noise indicator, and estimated number of people located in an area exposed to noise.
On the basis of the assessment provided by the strategic maps, competent authorities must draw up an action plan to reduce noise where necessary and to maintain environmental noise quality where it is good. The directive does not set any limit value, nor does it prescribe the measures to be used in the action plans, which remain at the discretion of the competent authorities. The action plans can include, among others, the following measures: traffic planning, land-use planning, technical measures at noise sources, selection of quieter sources and reduction of sound propagation by use of noise barriers, tunnels, insulation of dwellings and so on.
The third key element of the directive is to inform the public about strategic noise maps and action plans. This information shall be clear, comprehensible and accessible. By 30 June 2007, the Member States had to ensure strategic noise maps showing the situation in the preceding calendar year for all agglomerations with more than 250,000 inhabitants and for all major roads which have more than six million vehicle passages a year, major railways which have more than 60,000 train passages per year and major airports within their territories. By 18 July 2008, the Member States shall ensure the action plans for places near the major roads which have more than six million vehicle passages a year, major railways which have more than 60,000 train passages per year, major airports and for agglomerations with more than 250,000 inhabitants. By 30 June 2012, the Member States shall ensure strategic noise maps showing the situation in the preceding calendar year for all agglomerations and for all major roads, major railways and major airports within their territories. The data will be updated every five years.
The local nature of noise problems does not mean that all action is best taken at local level. Generally sources of noise are not of local origin. However, effective action is very dependent on strong local and national policies, and these need to be more closely related to the measures to be decided at community level. In this context, there is scope for cooperation across the Community to improve the data situation and the comparability of information, and in addition the Community could assist in the exchange of experience in noise abatement between Member States. The main area for Community involvement will remain linked to the reduction of noise from products. Here the Commission will be looking to broaden the range of instruments applied and paying particular attention to the potential of economic instruments, whose use to date is not widespread in noise abatement.