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EU tackles noise pollution in the environment

Surveys have shown that, for the public, environmental noise is now as big a perceived problem as global warming. With air traffic looking set to continue increasing by 5% a year, noise pollution from aircraft could add to this already troubling statistic. Intensive research is still required to boost political and technological progress in the field of environmental noise pollution. A European network called CALM has spent the past three years examining noise abatement research and technology to provide guidance to policy-makers in the transport and environment sectors.

Plane engines are just one source of environmental noise emanating from theaeronautics sector; Image: © Peter Gutierrez
Plane engines are just one source of environmental noise emanating from theaeronautics sector; Image: © Peter Gutierrez

Noise is more than a severe irritation for tens of millions of Europeans, it can lead to a range of health problems. European and national legislation aimed at controlling noise pollution has recorded some success in setting limits to various types of vehicles, but growing traffic in the air, on the ground and across Europe’s waterways remains a high concern for policy-makers in this area.

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, whether on road or in the air. While impact assessment studies show that noise from individual vehicles has fallen 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, which was launched in 2001 under the EU’s Fifth Framework Programme (FP5) for research, set out to develop a strategy for research on external noise, including a vision for the year 2020 to tackle environmental noise, and to conduct an inventory of ongoing noise research in Europe.

The network’s first milestone was its 2002 report entitled ‘Research for a quieter Europe’, which helped define the appropriate steps necessary to reduce noise emissions in the EU, especially in the areas of air traffic, road and rail transport and outdoor equipment. 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.

Delivering on promises

At a recent conference in Brussels, organised to mark the end of the first phase of the project, CALM delivered an updated version of its first strategy report called ‘Research for a quieter Europe in 2020’. In attendance at the 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.

Several ‘hot topics’ were presented at the event by designated working groups for health and socio-economic aspects, assessment of exposure to noise, railways, road transport, and outdoor equipment. In the afternoon sessions, the European transport 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 Per Kruppa during his opening address, adding that it was also an important day for European research policy aimed at reducing noise in the environment. He underlined the important links between noise policy and research, adding that the updated version of CALM’s strategy plan makes for serious reading. According to figures quoted in the strategy report, around 170 million EU citizens live in so-called ‘grey areas’ where noise could cause serious annoyance. Furthermore, 80 million people in the EU-15 suffer from unacceptable noise levels, he said. Again quoting figures from the CALM report, he noted some trends that add to the challenge faced by transport stakeholders.

Preserving the quiet

CALM’s vision for developing noise policy by 2020, according to the report, is to avoid harmful effects of noise exposure from all sources and to preserve quiet areas. The network clarifies what it means by noise. Sound, the report explains, 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”.   

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. 

Alfred Rust of AVL List in Austria, one of CALM’s coordinators, outlined the ambitions of their network and reeled off several technical and legal principles at play in reducing environmental noise. Technical action, he said, 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, Rust added. These are the ‘polluter pays’ principle, the precautionary principle, the 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.

On the subject of aeronautics

Kruppa spoke of the progress that has been made since he first started looking into the field of environmental noise research in the late 1980s. Back then, he said, the opinion was that “solutions were known [but] to reduce the external noise was a matter of implementing these solutions”. Today, noise has worked its way up the political agenda and involves basic research, industrial research, especially in the transport sector, and studies of the socio-economic dimension, including human perception and quality of life issues.

He went on to describe three large projects being supported by the Union in this area. The first, called ‘SILENCER’, is a project dealing with how to reduce external noise from aeroplanes and which targets both noise from engines and aerodynamic noise from the aircraft body. He also mentioned ‘SILENCE’ – without the ‘R’ – which deals with noise reduction for rail and road transport, and ‘Q-CITY’ which is focused on the perception of urban noise from these two modes of ground transport.

In aeronautics, Kruppa explained, the main aim is to reduce external noise, the so-called ‘perceived noise level’, by half of today’s level – equivalent to a 10dB reduction from a single aircraft. The strategic research agenda (SRA) also envisages that noise outside the airport boundary should be less than 65 dB Lden (equivalent sound level over day, evening and night period).

Dominique Collin of Snecma, the aerospace propulsion and equipment group, in France, and spokesperson at the conference for the Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe (ACARE), outlined the council’s mission and explained the areas of focus for aircraft noise reduction. He said ACARE’s two main objectives are to respond to society’s needs and to secure European global leadership in this sector. The focus of research, he added, is on noise generated by propulsion (i.e. engine noise) and airframe noise, including landing gear, high lift devices and surfaces.

Dietmar Wurzel of the German Aerospace Centre commented, during the session of the event for national contributors, that engines used to be the loudest component of an aircraft but technological advances now mean airframe noise is at the same level or even higher. Research needs to address all sources of noise, he stressed. And it needs to be backed up by other measures, such as regulations and incentives (rewards and punishments), which will speed up not just research but also the market penetration of new technologies.

Josef Affenzeller of AVL List in Austria, who spoke both as a coordinator of CALM and on behalf of the European Road Transport Research Advisory Council (ERTRAC), 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.

Beat the noise

The CALM initiative resulted from a close collaboration between the EU’s Directorates-General for Research and Environment, which ensures that research and action against noise pollution, according to the 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 a tightening of 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). 

At this time, 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 the legal 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 requires competent authorities in EU Member States to produce strategic noise maps around main transport infrastructures and in major agglomerations, in order to inform the public about noise exposure and its effects,” noted Mr Kruppa. It also calls on these authorities to draw up action plans to reduce noise, where necessary, or maintain current levels, if appropriate.

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 one of the priorities linked to the Directive.

CALM’s contribution to research and policy in this field will not stop because the FP5 project has concluded. Enlargement of the Union during 2004 adds another dimension to the network’s efforts to help the EU translate its Directive into action in 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.

Kruppa echoed this view in his closing comments, saying that he hopes European-level research schemes can develop in line with national programmes and that greater synergies can be found in many key areas, such as in noise perception. He called for delegates to use the CALM network’s website more actively, as their feedback helps in revising the strategic plan.