By Julia Fioretti
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Power plants in the European Union will have to cut the amount of toxic pollutants they emit such as nitrogen oxides under new rules approved by EU member states on Friday and widely applauded by environmental groups.
The decision imposes stricter limits on emissions of pollutants like nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury and particulate matter from large combustion plants in Europe.
"Air pollution is the prime environmental cause of premature death in the European Union," said Enrico Brivio, a spokesman for the European Commission.
Large combustion plants account for a big share of air pollutant emissions across the EU: 46 percent of sulfur dioxide, 18 percent of nitrogen oxide, 39 percent of mercury and 4 percent of dust, he added.
NGOs say the new rules could save more than 20,000 lives every year by reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants alone.
The EU's Industrial Emissions Directive, its main instrument regulating pollutant emissions from industrial plants, entered into force in 2011.
It sets EU-wide emission limits on large combustion plants for certain pollutants which can cause respiratory diseases.
However, the directive has been criticized for exemptions which have allowed more than half of Europe’s coal plants to exceed limits for harmful pollutants, according to a report by environmental groups last year.
Several countries which are heavily reliant on coal, such as Poland, Bulgaria, Germany and the Czech Republic, were opposed to the changes.
"EU coal power plants will now either have to reduce their pollution or close down," said Darek Urbaniak, senior energy policy officer at WWF.
"It is about time Europe quits its dirty coal addiction for good and invests in energy efficiency and renewables instead."
There had been concerns in some countries such as Bulgaria that power plants would be forced to close down or that electricity prices would go up.
Brivio said "the European law does not require the closure of Bulgarian plants and will not increase the price of electricity."
National authorities will be able to use a derogation, or form of exemption, when costs would be disproportionate compared with the environmental benefits, Brivio said, while respecting environmental safeguards.
The stricter limits will apply to all 2,900 large combustion plants in the EU, including coal-fired power stations and peat, oil and gas power plants, and will have to be met by 2021.
(Additional reporting by Nina Chestney in London; Editing by Hugh Lawson)