Industrial releases of air pollutants that damage human health and the environment decreased between 2010 and 2021 in Europe. Emissions of greenhouse gases (e.g. carbon dioxide (CO2)), and other pollutants (e.g. sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM10) and heavy metals) all declined significantly. However, the value that industry generated for the European economy during this period increased, and therefore shows an increase in efficiency in terms of the ratio of emissions generated and the value output of the sector. The effects of COVID-19 is apparent in 2020 with a rebound in 2021 but confirming an overall declining trend of emissions in the latest year.

Figure 1. Industrial releases of pollutants to air and economic activity in the EU-27

Industrial releases of pollutants to air and economic activity in the EU-27

European industry results in the release of pollutants to air. These include greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and acidifying pollutants (e.g. sulphur oxides — SOx), and other pollutants that damage human health and the environment, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (in this case PM10), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) and heavy metals including cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb) and mercury (Hg).

To reduce pollutant emissions, natural resource use and waste generation, EU industrial policy aims to drive a transition to a strong, climate neutral industry based on circular material flows. Monitoring the release of air pollutants is key to tracking progress towards achieving this goal.

Industrial emissions to air are reported under the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP Convention) , Greenhouse Gas Monitoring Mechanism Regulation (CO2) and the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR), which covers releases from large industrial facilities involved only in certain activities.

Between 2010 and 2021, industrial releases of SOx and PM10 decreased by about 70% in the EU. Other emissions decreased to a lesser extent: heavy metals (Cd, Hg and Pb) by 56%, NOx by 47%, NMVOC by 29% and CO2 by 23%. During the same period, the value that industry generated for the economy — measured by gross added value (GVA) — increased, indicating that European industry has become less emission intensive as the ratio of air pollutant releases to the production of industrial goods decreased. GVA in 2021 returned to a pre COVID-19 pandemic level, which led to a rebound of emissions. However, the rebound is not fundamentally challenging the overall decrease of emission intensity by the sector.

The decrease in industrial pollutant emissions to air can be partly attributed to European regulation, such as the EU Emissions Trading System and the Industrial Emissions Directive, improvements in energy efficiency and abatement technologies, and the relocation of various heavy-polluting and energy-intensive manufacturing industries (such as textile or metal production) outside Europe.

Figure 2. Change in emissions in the EU-27 countries, 2010-2021

Change in emissions in the EU-27 countries, 2010-2021

Since 2010, while recovering from the impact of the economic downturn of 2008 – 2009, emission levels from the industrial sector decreased at a steady rate for most of the pollutants. Industrial emissions are very complex in terms of substances to consider, their impacts on environment and health and the very different realities across European countries.

Some patterns can be identified. On the one hand, emissions of pollutants associated primarily to activities that include combustion processes (e.g. electricity producers, iron and steel works, cement plants), are generally decreasing across the board. This refers to emissions of NOx, SOx and PM10. This trend is consistent with the improvement of environmental performance of these industries and shifts of fuels (with a progressive abandonment of coal). Evidence points to EU policy as one of the key drivers of these positive developments as significant emissions reductions (over 50% since 2010) occurred in almost all countries that joined the European Union recently.

Similarly, greenhouse gas emissions, in particular CO2, are decreasing overall, whereas emissions of NMVOC show a slightly mixed picture.

Heavy metals (Cd, Hg, Pb) are emitted in relatively lower amounts and they have a naturally variable trend over time. There are everal reasons for this, some related to the reporting mechanism (which includes estimations and operates with minimum thresholds) and others related to actual developments in that industry.