Sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions (APE 001) - Assessment published Jan 2014
Air pollution (Primary topic)
Environment and health
Typology: Performance indicator (Type B - Does it matter?)
- APE 001
Key policy question: What progress is being made in reducing emissions of SO2?
- EEA-33 emissions of sulphur oxides (SOX) have decreased by 74% between 1990 and 2011. In 2011, the most significant sectoral source of SOX emissions was 'Energy production and distribution' (58% of total emissions), followed by emissions occurring from 'Energy use in industry' (20%) and in the 'Commercial, institutional and households' (15%) sector.
- The reduction in emissions since 1990 has been achieved as a result of a combination of measures, including fuel-switching in energy-related sectors away from high-sulphur solid and liquid fuels to low-sulphur fuels such as natural gas, the fitting of flue gas desulphurisation abatement technology in industrial facilities and the impact of European Union directives relating to the sulphur content of certain liquid fuels.
- All of the EU-28 Member States have reduced their national SOX emissions below the level of the 2010 emission ceilings set in the National Emission Ceilings Directive (NECD). Emissions in 2011 for the three EEA countries having emission ceilings set under the UNECE/CLRTAP Gothenburg protocol (Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) were also below the level of their respective 2010 ceilings.
- Environmental context: Typically, sulphur dioxide is emitted when fuels or other materials containing sulphur are combusted or oxidised. It is a pollutant that contributes to acid deposition, which, in turn, can lead to changes in soil and water quality. The subsequent impacts of acid deposition can be significant, including adverse effects on aquatic ecosystems in rivers and lakes and damage to forests, crops and other vegetation. SO2 emissions also aggravate asthma conditions and can reduce lung function and inflame the respiratory tract. They also contribute, as a secondary particulate pollutant, to the formation of particulate matter in the atmosphere, an important air pollutant in terms of its adverse impact on human health. Furthermore, the formation of sulphate particles in the atmosphere following the release of SO2 results in reflection of solar radiation, which leads to net cooling of the atmosphere.
 Emissions data reported by EU Member States under NECD is used for comparison with NECD ceilings, and data reported under CLRTAP is used for all other calculations unless otherwise stated.
Significant progress in reducing SOX emissions has been made by many countries; EEA-33 emissions of SOX have decreased by 74% between 1990 and 2011. Within the EEA-33 group of countries, all have reported lower emissions in 2011 compared to 1990, except Iceland (3.8 times greater) and Turkey (52% greater).
The large increase in SOX emissions in Iceland, from 21 kt in 1990 to 81 kt in 2011, is due chiefly to the reported emissions from the 'Energy production and distribution' sector rising by 51 kt since 1990. This sector alone now contributed 79% of Iceland's total emissions in 2011. These emissions are mostly comprised of fugitive emissions from the 'other energy extraction' sector, which includes sulphurous volcanic gas emissions from geothermal energy production. Many of these occur naturally but are only reported once they are part of an energy generation process.
All of the EU-28 Member States have reduced their national SOX emissions below the level of the 2010 emission ceilings set in the National Emission Ceilings Directive (NECD).
Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey are not members of the European Union and hence have no emission ceilings set under the NECD. However, Norway and Switzerland have ratified the Gothenburg Protocol, requiring them to reduce their emissions to the agreed ceiling specified in the protocol by 2010. Liechtenstein has also signed, but not ratified the protocol. All three countries have reported that emissions in 2011 were lower than their respective 2010 Gothenburg Protocol ceilings.
The revision of the National Emission Ceilings Directive 2001/81/EC (NECD) is part of the implementation of the Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution. The proposal to amend the NECD is still under preparation and should set emission ceilings to be respected by 2020 for the four already regulated substances (NOX, NMVOC, SOX and NH3), as well as for the primary emissions of PM2.5. A revision of the Gothenburg protocol was published in June 2012, and proposed percentage emission reductions from 2005 levels to be met by 2020 for the four already regulated substances and primary emissions of PM2.5. Existing emission ceilings for 2010 have been extended to 2020 such that all countries have additional obligations to maintain emission levels below their 2010 ceilings, or to further reduce emissions if they have not yet met these ceilings.
Nine of the EU-28 Member States have already met the 2020 targets proposed under the Gothenburg protocol, and all of the remaining countries except five (Germany, Lithuania, Finland, Malta and Estonia) are on track to reduce emissions to their ceiling by or before 2020.
Of the five non-EU countries within the EEA-33, only Norway and Switzerland have 2020 targets proposed under the Gothenburg protocol. Both of these countries reported emissions in 2011 that were lower than their 2020 emission ceilings.
Specific policy question: How do different sectors and processes contribute to emissions of SO2?
Substantial SOX emission reductions have been made across a number of sectors including: 'Waste' (84% reduction between 1990 and 2011), 'Energy production and distribution' (76%), 'Energy use in industry' (72%) and 'Commercial, institutional and households' (67%).
The 'Energy production and distribution' sector (encompassing activities such as power and heat generation) is responsible for the largest reduction in absolute terms of emissions, contributing 65% of the total reduction in SOX emissions reported by countries. Nevertheless, despite this significant reduction, this single sector remains the most significant source of SOX in the EEA-33 region, contributing over half of total SOX emissions in 2011. Across Europe, there is also an increasing awareness of the contribution made to SOX emissions by national and international ship traffic, and especially the health effects of such emissions whilst at berth (a more detailed discussion of this issue is contained in the TERM indicator fact sheet TERM03 - Transport emissions of air pollutants). From 1 January 2010, all ships using fuel at berth in EU ports for significant periods were required to use exclusively low-sulphur fuel (0.1%), and from 1 July 2010, within Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECAs) defined in the North Sea, English Channel and Baltic Sea, all ships were required to use fuel with sulphur content not exceeding 1.0%. EEA33 countries have reported a reduction in emissions from national navigation (shipping) of 7.8% between 2009 and 2011, and further reductions in later years may be expected as additional legislation comes into force.
A combination of measures has led to the reductions in SOX emissions. This includes fuel-switching from high-sulphur solid (e.g. coal) and liquid (e.g. heavy fuel oil) fuels to low sulphur fuels (such as natural gas) for power and heat production purposes within the energy, industry and domestic sectors, improvements in energy efficiency, and the installation of flue gas desulphurisation equipment in new and existing industrial facilities where high-sulphur fuels are used. The implementation of several directives within the EU, limiting the sulphur content of transport fuel, has also contributed to decrease.
The newer Member States of the European Union have, in a number of cases, also undergone significant economic structural changes since the early 1990s, which have led to a general decline in certain activities that previously contributed significantly to high levels of sulphur emissions (e.g. heavy industry) and the closure of older, less efficient, power plants.
National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive Inventory
provided by Directorate-General for Environment (DG ENV)
National emissions reported to the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP Convention)
provided by United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (Environment and Human Settlements Division, UNECE)
More information about this indicator
See this indicator specification for more details.
Contacts and ownership
EEA Contact InfoMartin Adams
EEA Management Plan2013 1.1.2 (note: EEA internal system)
Frequency of updates
- 20 Dec 2012 - Sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions (APE 001) - Assessment published Dec 2012
- 21 Dec 2011 - Sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions (APE 001) - Assessment published Dec 2011
- 15 Oct 2010 - Sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions (APE 001) - Assessment published Oct 2010
- 15 Feb 2010 - EEA-32 Sulphur dioxide SO2 emissions (APE 001) - Assessment published Feb 2010
- 07 Aug 2008 - Emission trends of sulphur dioxide SO2
- 11 Oct 2004 - EEA31 emissions of SO2
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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