Between 2010 and 2021, industrial releases to Europe’s water bodies of pollutants that damage human health and the environment declined overall. Releases of heavy metals declined significantly, while emissions of nitrogen, which cause eutrophication, declined to a lesser extent. In the same period, the economic value of industry increased by 16% despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, in line with the EU policy objective of supporting industrial growth while decreasing industrial emissions. However, data gaps make it difficult to assess industry’s contribution to overall water pollution in Europe.

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

Water is a valuable resource that is under pressure in the EU, with only 40% of surface water bodies standing in good ecological status and 35% in good chemical status. Industrial activity leads to the release of pollutants to water, including total organic carbon (TOC) and compounds that contain nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, which can cause eutrophication, and heavy metals such as Cd, Pb, Hg and Ni, which also have detrimental impacts on the environment and human health.

EU industrial policy strives to reduce pollutant emissions while supporting growth and competitiveness. Legislation, such as the Water Framework Directive (WFD) or the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), aims to protect Europe’s water bodies from industrial emissions, among other things, thus supporting this goal. Monitoring changes in industrial emissions to water is key to tracking progress towards achieving industrial policy objectives.

Overall, industrial releases to water were lower in 2021 than in 2010: emissions of heavy metals (Cd, Hg, Pb and Ni) decreased significantly, largely as a result of decreasing releases of Pb, level of nitrogen and phosphorus decreased to a much lesser extend. This partly reflects the positive influence of European policy and improved pollution abatement technology on industrial emissions to water, coupled with a shift in the mix of activities across the continent to less-polluting industrial activities. These emissions reductions were achieved despite a 16% increase in the value that European industry generated for the economy, measured as gross value added (GVA), indicating that, although European industry is generating more economic output, it is becoming less emissions intensive, in line with the objectives of the EU industrial strategy.

Industrial emissions to water are reported under the European Pollutant Transfer and Release Register (E-PRTR). Although this covers the 45 substances included in the WFD’s list of priority substances, the data quality and consistency of reporting across countries are sufficient for only a small selection of water pollutants, which does not include numerous organic pollutants, pesticides and emerging compounds, such as pharmaceuticals and microplastics. Improving and widening the scope of reporting to the E-PRTR would allow a more meaningful analysis of the impacts of industrial emissions on Europe’s water bodies.

Figure 2. Water pollutant releases changes from 2010 to 2021 for the EU Member States
Water pollutant releases changes from 2010 to 2021 for the EU Member States

Industrial releases to water are complex, with very different underlying environment issues at stake. Total organic carbon (TOC), nitrogen and phosphorus are three key parameters of overall pollution in water releases, with a focus on the impact these waters can have in the functioning of water ecosystems, particularly the abovementioned eutrophication phenomenon. Progress across countries in containing these releases is mixed, as highlighted in Figure 2. While this reflects, in certain instances, better monitoring of releases, it confirms the remaining need to better treat these releases in line with the objectives of EU water policies.

Heavy metals have been included in the table as they are a good proxy of heavier industry releases, of a more toxic nature. Wastewater treatment infrastructure is generally not designed to address these pollutants and, therefore, they indicate industrial emissions that were not sufficiently abated at source. Reporting to the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register indicates a general consistent progress across countries, with some exceptions, as the table depicts. However, more efforts are needed to contribute to improving the ecological and chemical status of European water bodies.