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Briefing

Eutrophication of terrestrial ecosystems due to air pollution

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2018 Last modified 26 Nov 2019
10 min read
Photo: © Myriams-Fotos / Pixabay

Indicator

Indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook for the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Exposure of terrestrial ecosystems to eutrophication due to air pollution

EU

Green triangle: improving trend

EEA

Green triangle: improving trend

Reduce areas of critical load exceedance with
respect to eutrophication from air pollution by 43 % from 2000 levels  — Air Pollution Thematic Strategy

 

Red circle: it is unlikely that the objective will be met by 2020

The area where ecosystems are exposed to eutrophication because of air pollution (excess atmospheric nitrogen deposition) has decreased. According to a scenario assuming that current legislation is fully implemented, it will, nevertheless, fall short of the 2020 objective.

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2018

The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) includes the objective of reducing the impact of air pollution on ecosystems and biodiversity, with the long-term aim of not exceeding critical loads and levels. Critical loads represent the upper limit of the levels of one or more air pollutants deposited to the Earth’s surface that an ecosystem can tolerate without being damaged. Currently, the most important impact of air pollution on ecosystems and biodiversity is eutrophication. The EU Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution includes a milestone for 2020 — relative to 2000 — of a 43 % reduction in the areas of ecosystems exposed to eutrophication as a result of air pollution, i.e. ecosystem areas where eutrophication critical loads are exceeded. It has been estimated that between 2000 and 2020 even if current legislation is fully implemented the reduction in ecosystem areas exposed to eutrophication from air pollution will only be approximately 31 %. This reduction is because of decreases in eutrophying nitrogen emissions to air – ammonia and nitrogen dioxide. However, ammonia from agriculture and nitrogen dioxide from transport continue to contribute significantly to eutrophication caused by air pollution. The eutrophication reduction milestone will therefore not be met unless further specific and targeted mitigation measures are put in place to address this. Dietary changes resulting in less meat and dairy farming, and less use of petrol and diesel in cars could also contribute to reductions.  


Setting the scene

The 7th EAP (EU, 2013) includes the objective of reducing the impact of air pollution on ecosystems and biodiversity, with the long-term aim of not exceeding critical levels and loads. Currently, the most important impact of air pollution on ecosystems and biodiversity is eutrophication caused by airborne nitrogen deposition to ecosystems. In certain sensitive terrestrial ecosystems such as grasslands, excessive atmospheric loads of nitrogen can alone result in loss of sensitive species, increased growth of species that benefit from high nitrogen levels, changes to habitat structure and function, the homogenisation of vegetation types, etc. This briefing addresses ecosystem eutrophication from airborne sources. There are also other sources that cause ecosystem eutrophication (e.g. use of fertilisers on cropland and pastures if not applied correctly — see AIRS_PO1.2, 2018).

Policy targets and progress

The EU Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution includes a milestone for 2020, relative to 2000, of a 43 % reduction in areas of ecosystems exposed to eutrophication, i.e. areas where eutrophication critical loads are exceeded (EC, 2005a,  2005b). This milestone is in line with the long-term objective of not exceeding critical loads.  

In 2000[1], the ecosystem area in which the critical load was exceeded in the EU was about 78 % (approximately 60 % in all 33 EEA member countries, i.e. including the 28 EU Member States). By 2010, the figure had decreased to 63 % in the EU (55 % in all 33 EEA member countries). Assuming that current legislation is fully implemented, the area in exceedance is projected to be 54 % in the EU (48 % in all 33 EEA member countries) in 2020 (EEA, 2018a). The relative reduction will be approximately 31 % for the EU, as well as for all the 33 EEA member countries, between 2000 and 2020, which is below the 43 % reduction milestone suggested by the air pollution thematic strategy for this period.

Figure 1 shows the area as well as the magnitude (the intensity) of the exceedance in 2000 and 2020. It illustrates that the area of exceedance is not projected to decline sufficiently to meet the 2020 reduction milestone. It also illustrates that the magnitude of the exceedance within the affected areas will nevertheless decline in most of these areas, except for a few ‘hot spots’, particularly in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as in northern Italy.

Figure 1. Exposure of ecosystems to risk of eutrophication due to airborne deposition of nitrogen — area and magnitude of exceedance in 2000 and 2020.

Sources:
a. EEA – Indicator CSI005
b. CCE (Coordination Centre for Effects), CLRTAP, UNECE.


Note: The maps show areas where critical loads for eutrophication of freshwater and terrestrial habitats are exceeded

The sources of eutrophication are emissions of nitrogen compounds (i.e. nitrogen oxide, ammonia) to the atmosphere.

Nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions for the EU decreased by approximately 42 % between 2000 and 2016 (EEA, 2018b). This reduction was primarily because of the introduction of three-way catalytic converters for vehicles. However, emission reductions from modern vehicles have not been as large as was originally anticipated. Standard diesel vehicles, for example, can emit up to seven times more NOx in real‑world conditions than in official tests (EEA, 2016).

Ammonia (NH3) emissions in the EU have not fallen by as much. In 2016, they had fallen by approximately 9 % compared with 2000 levels (EEA, 2018b). In fact, EU ammonia emissions increased by 2 % between 2014 and 2016 (AIRS_PO3.2, 2018). Agriculture is the main source of NH3 emissions; they amount to over 90 % of total emissions in the EU. Emissions primarily arise from the decomposition of urea in animal wastes and uric acid in poultry wastes.

A key driver behind the observed reductions was the implementation of the National Emission Ceilings Directive (EU, 2001), which set air pollutant emission ceilings to be achieved by 2010 for, inter alia, emissions of the eutrophying air pollutants NOx and NH3. However, eutrophying emissions primarily from the agriculture and road transport sectors, but also from shipping and air travel, have been and will remain significant contributors to eutrophication caused by air pollution.

Further reductions in eutrophying air pollutant emissions are expected by 2020. This is a result of the 2012 amended Gothenburg Protocol, which set stricter air pollutant emission ceilings for 2020 (UNECE, 2012) and of the revised National Emission Ceilings Directive which, inter alia, reflected these ceilings in EU legislation (EU, 2016).

Nevertheless, as illustrated at the start of this section, the decreases anticipated for 2020 — under a scenario that assumes current legislation (including the revised National Emission Ceilings Directive) is fully implemented — are not expected to contribute sufficiently to reductions in the ecosystem area exposed to excess atmospheric nitrogen deposition and affected by eutrophication. The relative reduction over the 2000-2020 period is expected to be only about 31 %, which is below the EU thematic strategy’s suggested milestone of a 43 % reduction for that period. Deeper reductions could take place through additional specific and targeted (technical) mitigation measures, particularly in the agriculture and transport sectors. Dietary changes resulting in less meat and dairy farming, and less use of petrol and diesel in cars could also contribute to reductions.

Country level information

Figure 2 shows the percentage of the area by country where the critical loads for eutrophication were exceeded in 2010 and the areas where exceedance is expected in 2020. Although a decrease is predicted by 2020, if current legislation is implemented, the area showing exceedance will be above 50 % in most countries (see bars). Extremely high magnitudes of exceedance can be found in Denmark, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland, caused by high deposition rates and/or ecosystems that are very sensitive to an excess supply of nitrogen from the atmosphere (see dots), for example nutrient-poor grasslands. 

Figure 2. The ecosystem area at risk of eutrophication because of airborne nitrogen deposition and the magnitude of exceedance in each country

Note: AAE is the average accumulated exceedance, showing the magnitude of exceedance in nitrogen equivalents per hectare and year. The data are based on the revised Gothenburg Protocol emission reduction agreements of 2012 (assuming for the 2020 scenario that current legislation is fully implemented). Data for Serbia and Montenegro are presented as aggregated data.

Outlook beyond 2020

The updated EU air pollution strategy aims, inter alia, to achieve a situation in which the EU ecosystem area exceeding critical loads for eutrophication is reduced by 35 % by 2030, relative to 2005 (EC, 2013a).

The revised National Emission Ceilings Directive not only transposed the amended Gothenburg Protocol 2020 air pollutant reduction commitments, it also set more ambitious air pollutant reduction commitments for 2030. These commitments — in particular the reduction commitments for the two eutrophying air pollutants, NOx and NH3 — will contribute to the achievement of the objective of 35 % by 2030.

However, this objective would not be met if current legislation was fully implemented. It would only be met if the maximum number of technically feasible reduction measures was implemented (EC, 2013b).

Beyond 2030, the EU will strive towards ‘achieving levels of air quality that do not give rise to significant negative impacts on and risks to human health and the environment’ (EU, 2002).

About the indicator

The indicator shows area and quantitative information for ecosystems where atmospheric nitrogen deposition is above the critical load. A critical load is a 'quantitative estimate of an exposure to one or more pollutants, below which significant harmful effects on specified sensitive elements of the environment do not occur according to present knowledge' (UNECE, 2015). Deposition loads of eutrophying airborne pollutants above the critical loads are termed an 'exceedance'. 

Exposure in an ecosystem for which information on critical loads is available is calculated as the average accumulated exceedance (AAE). The AAE is the area-weighted average of exceedances, accumulated over all sensitive habitats (or ecosystem points) defined in a grid cell.

Footnotes and references

[1] The 2000 data presented here were provided by the Coordination Centre for Effects — a data centre under the UNECE Convention on Transboundary Air Pollution — on 21 November 2014 and can be obtained on demand from the EEA. Similarly, the 2010 and 2020 data presented here and in the related EEA indicator (EEA, 2018a) are from the same source and time stamp.

 

CCE, 2016, ‘Coordination Centre for Effects’, a data centre under the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) (http://wge-cce.org) accessed 19 February 2018.

EC, 2005a, Communication of 21 September 2005 from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament ‘Thematic strategy on air pollution’ (COM(2005) 446 final of 21 September 2005) (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=URISERV%3Al28159) accessed 19 February 2018.

EC, 2005b, Commission staff working paper - Annex to the Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament ‘Thematic strategy on air pollution’ {COM(2005) 446 final} (SEC(2005) 1132 (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52005SC1132) accessed 19 February 2018.

EC, 2013a, ‘The Clean Air Policy Package’, adopted 18.12.2013 (http://ec.europa.eu/environment/air/clean_air_policy.htm) accessed 19 February 2018.

EC, 2013b, Commission staff working paper -  Executive Summary of the impact assessment of ‘The Clean Air Policy Package’, SWD(2013) 532 final of 18.12.2013 (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52013SC0532&from=EN) accessed 19 February 2018.

EEA, 2016, Explaining road transport emissions — A non-technical guide (http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/explaining-road-transport-emissions) accessed 19 February 2018.

EEA, 2018a, ‘Exposure of ecosystems to acidification, eutrophication and ozone (CSI 005)’ (https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/exposure-of-ecosystems-to-acidification-14/assessment-1) accessed 14 November 2018.

EEA, 2018b, ‘Emissions of the main air pollutants in Europe (CSI 040)’ (https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/main-anthropogenic-air-pollutant-emissions/assessment-4) accessed 14 November 2018. 

EU, 2001, Directive 2001/81/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2001 on national emission ceilings for certain atmospheric pollutants (OJ L 309, 27.11.2001, p. 22–30) (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A32001L0081) accessed 19 February 2018.

EU, 2002, Decision No 1600/2002/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 July 2002 laying down the Sixth Community Environment Action Programme (OJ L 242, 10.9.2002) (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32002D1600&from=EN) accessed 19 February 2018.  

EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’ (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200) (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:32013D1386) accessed 19 February 2018.

EU, 2016, Directive (EU) 2016/2284 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 December 2016 on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants, amending Directive 2003/35/EC and repealing Directive 2001/81/EC (OJ L 344, 17.12.2016, p. 1–31) (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=uriserv%3AOJ.L_.2016.344.01.0001.01.ENG) accessed 19 February 2018.

UNECE, 2012, ‘The 1999 Gothenburg protocol to abate acidification, eutrophication and ground-level ozone’, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (http://www.unece.org/env/lrtap/multi_h1.html) accessed 19 February 2018.

UNECE, 2015, Manual on methodologies and criteria for modelling and mapping critical loads and levels and air pollution effects, risks and trends, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, International Cooperative Programme on Modelling and Mapping (http://icpmapping.org/Latest_update_Mapping_Manual) accessed 19 February 2018.

 

AIRS briefings

AIRS_PO3.2, 2018, Air pollutant emissions

 

Environmental indicator report 2018 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No19/2018, European Environment Agency

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