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‘CALMing’ influence – European noise pollution network

Noise is more than a vexation for millions of Europeans; it can cause real health problems. European and national legislation aimed at controlling noise pollution has had a modicum of success but problems persist. Intensive research is still required to boost law-making and policy-making efforts. An EU-supported network called CALM has spent the past three years drawing lines between current noise abatement research and technology and EU regulations and policies in this field.

Perhaps the quietest transport; Image: © Peter Gutierrez
Perhaps the quietest transport; Image: © Peter Gutierrez

Noise pollution has long been and remains high on the list of public concerns about the environment. Measures for reducing this problem have taken on increasing importance in EU policy-making and research priorities. European attempts to limit noise in the area of transport, from the 1970s until the 1990s, focused on fixing maximum sound levels for certain types of vehicles, including road, rail and air-borne vehicles. While impact assessment studies show that noise from individual vehicles has reduced considerably, the benefits are being eroded by a general increase and spread of traffic in urban and non-urban settings across Europe.

The CALM network, launched in 2001 under the EU’s Fifth Framework Programme (FP5) for research, set out to establish and coordinate a ‘Community Noise Reduction Strategy Plan’. The first edition of this report, published in 2002 and entitled ‘Research for a Quieter Europe’, helped define the appropriate steps necessary to reduce noise emissions in the EU, especially in the areas of air traffic, road and rail transport, marine technologies and outdoor equipment.

The plan assembled the body of available research at the time and proposed areas where further research was still very much needed. Research in this field, according to the network, must take into consideration relevant standards, socio-economic factors, and strategies and visions for future measures aimed at reaching acceptable noise emission levels for EU citizens.

Noise reduction strategies for a quieter Europe

The CALM network’s strategy and vision were presented in detail at a recent conference in Brussels, organised to mark the end of CALM’s first phase. In attendance at the ‘Noise reduction strategies for a quieter Europe’ event were Commission representatives, members of the various working groups on environmental noise, speakers from research advisory councils representing different transport modes, national delegates, as well as other stakeholders in the environmental, transport and research sectors.

At the conference, ‘hot topics’ were presented by representatives of the working group for health and socio-economic aspects, assessment of exposure to noise, railways, road transport, and outdoor equipment. In the afternoon, European research advisory councils presented the latest information on their respective sectors, and several contributions were heard from national stakeholders.

“Today is an important milestone for the CALM network,” said the Commission’s Perr Kruppa during his opening address, “but it is also important day for European policy in our efforts to reduce noise in the environment.” He said there can be no progress in noise policy without research, adding that the updated version of CALM’s strategy plan makes for worrying reading. According to figures quoted in the report entitled ‘Research for a quieter Europe in 2020’, around 170 million EU citizens are thought to live in so-called “grey areas” where noise causes serious annoyance.

Noise costs

CALM’s vision for developing noise policy by 2020 is “to avoid harmful effects of noise exposure from all sources and to preserve quiet areas”. Sound is an unavoidable by-product of human existence. But it can be pleasant when arranged, for instance, into music and even useful when relayed as information and communication. Sound becomes noise when it either exceeds acceptable levels or provides no perceived benefit to the person exposed to it, thus by CALM’s definition it becomes “unwanted, annoying, disturbing or even constitutes a health risk”.   

The effects of unwanted sound can range from simple annoyance to more serious ailments such as insomnia, high blood pressure, heart disease, mental stress and hearing impairment. In addition to general annoyance and health affects, environmental noise pollution also has a huge economic cost to societies which is estimated to be between 0.2% and 2% of gross domestic product – equivalent to at least €12 billion. 

There are technical and legal principles at play in reducing environmental noise, explains Alfred Rust of AVL List in Austria, one of CALM’s coordinators. Technical action includes avoiding and reducing noise at the source, reducing it from where it is propagated and reducing it at the receiver’s end. Legally, there are several ways of looking at it, Mr Rust added. These are the ‘polluter pays’ principle, the precautionary principle, co-operation approach – seeing it as a common challenge for everyone – and the ‘subsidiarity’ and shared responsibility principle, which means decision-making on how to mitigate noise pollution should be made as close as possible to the citizens.

Who said what?

One member of the audience felt that the psychological aspects were underrepresented in the strategy plan. “If you want to develop noise policy you have to develop not only the stimulus side but also the response side,” he stressed. In response, the CALM spokesperson said that these issues are being dealt with in other research but that it is certainly an area deserving more attention in the future.

Michael vom Baur of CESA/Coredes in Norway, who spoke for ACMARE (the Advisory Council for Maritime Research) at the event, mentioned that maritime – including inland waterways – is not covered in the report but is not to be underestimated as a source of noise pollution, especially in and around the ports and on the water itself. He said his organisation is one the newer ones but that the sector is well organised from a policy perspective. For example, its ‘master plan’, created in the 1990s, has informed successive EU Framework Programmes.

Other speakers included Dominique Collin of Snecma, France, who spoke for ACARE (the Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe) and CALM co-coordinator Josef Affenzeller of AVL List in Austria, who spoke for ERTRAC (the European Road Transport Research Advisory Council). They introduced the main aims and achievements of these councils in their respective fields, and reflected on how noise reduction can be achieved particularly in light of the EU’s goals communicated through the European Summits at Lisbon, Barcelona and Gothenburg.

In particular, Mr Affenzeller said that such councils are needed because of the complex network of actors involved in the sector. “ERTRAC wants to establish and carry forward a common vision for 2020 and a strategic research agenda (SRA),” he said. To do this, it promotes links between EU and national research programmes, develops and implements communication strategies to promote awareness, and supports public-private R&D schemes.

Pierre-Etienne Gautier of SNCF France spoke on behalf of ERRAC (the European Rail Research Advisory Council), saying that the European rail sector has an ambitious 2020 agenda which would see a 40% increase in passenger traffic and a 70% hike in freight. In preparation for this growth, their SRA identifies a number of projects to advance R&D towards quieter railways, such as in rail rolling noise and rolling stock systems. Philippe Renard, head of research at SNCF and chair of ERRAC, then briefly took the floor. He observed that the railways will be essential in 2020 but that we need to choose very carefully our research priorities because R&D is expensive. “The first priority is implementation of policy directives, and we need socio-economic and industrial research to know how best to do this in rail transport,” he suggested.

On-going battle against noise

The CALM initiative is the result of a close collaboration between the Research DG and the Environment DG which ensures that research and action against noise pollution, according to the strategy report, “are in line with the EU directives, noise policy and other environmental policies of the EU, such as air quality”.

Successive EU directives laid down specific noise emission limits for most road vehicles and many types of outdoor equipment from the 1970s onwards. Despite increasingly stringent legislation, and considerable effort made by industry, progress was slow. In the mid-1990s, it became clear that noise policy should not only be directed at the source, or emission of the sound, but also at the reception side of the exchange – the ‘immission’ of noise. ‘The Green Paper on Future Noise Policy’, issued in 1996, marked the beginning of a new approach to the problem and culminated in the Environmental Noise Directive (2002/49/EC). Noise policy is also shaped around a long-term set of targets based on the Sixth Environmental Action Programme, also released in 2002.

The Directive provides a basis for future action at the EU level and, according to the report, “focuses on a common approach to addressing environmental noise, executed at the regional, national and local levels according to the principle of shared responsibility”. The Directive defines three main elements to manage environmental noise: harmonised assessment, information and public participation, and appropriate actions. More specific goals for future research include providing answers to open questions, finding solutions for significant problems, and supplying the missing data. Research on noise perception and emissions will be a priority under the Directive.

CALM’s contribution to research and policy in this field will not stop because the FP5 project has concluded. The events of enlargement during 2004 add another dimension to their efforts to help the EU translate its Directive into action in the EU of 25 nations. One of the stated aims of extending the CALM project under the Union’s Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), as a coordinated action, is to learn more about the affects of noise generated by transport and outdoor equipment in the expanded Union, thus taking into consideration the ten new Member States.

“A good balance of research in noise emission, propagation and perception will be essential for sustainable development towards a quieter Europe,” the CALM network concluded. For this, better coordination of the European and national activities, including the research advisory council, as well as stakeholders from industry, academia, advocate groups and EU citizens themselves.