Industry is an important part of the European economy, providing vital goods for modern life and jobs. At the same time, it is a source of great pressure on nature and on human health. Even though releases of pollutants by European industry have generally decreased over the last decade, the impacts and costs of pollution from industry remain high.

Industrial activities are a source of pressure on the environment, mainly in the form of emissions to the atmosphere and water ecosystems, waste generation and resource consumption.

The biggest industries in Europe are the manufacture of food, beverages and tobacco products, the manufacture of motor vehicles and other transport equipment and the manufacture of basic metals and fabricated metal, according to Eurostat. In 2022, the value of industrial products sold in the European Union amounted to €6,179 billion.

In 2021, the costs of air pollution caused by Europe’s largest industrial plants corresponded to about 2% of the EU’s GDP. Just one percent (107) of the most polluting industrial facilities — many of them coal power plants — caused half of the total damage. However, the EEA analysis also shows that environmental and health costs of European industry have decreased by a third (-33%) from 2012 to 2021. 

People living in large industrial cities or regions typically experience more air pollution. For other pollutants, such as heavy metals, the pathway is more complex. It can be through inhalation, but also through the consumption of contaminated food and drink.

In addition to harming human health, industrial pollutant emissions also harm plants, animals and their habitats, altering breeding cycles and biodiversity. Pollutants can also deposit on buildings and monuments and corrode vital infrastructure, requiring costly repairs.

The most polluting sectors of industry are the energy sector, followed by heavy industry, fuel production and processing, light industry, waste management, livestock and wastewater treatment.

  • Costs of air pollution caused by Europe’s largest industrial plants are substantial, averaging between EUR 268 to EUR 428 billion per year, an EEA analysis shows. In 2021, these costs corresponded to about 2% of the EU’s GDP.
  • Air pollution from thermal power plants causes the most damage to health and the environment. In total, 24 of the top 30 polluting facilities are thermal power stations (the majority use coal, some combine gas or oil), with fifteen located in western and northern Europe (seven in Germany) and a further nine in eastern and south-eastern Europe. While the most polluting power station is located in Poland, four of the top five are in Germany.
  • 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. 
  • Between 2005 and 2020, emissions of cadmium, mercury and lead declined in the EU-27 Member States by 39%, 51% and 49%, respectively.

In March 2020, the European Commission presented an industrial policy that would support the twin green and digital transitions, make the EU industry more competitive globally and enhance Europe’s open strategic autonomy. The policy was updated in May 2021 to ensure that European industrial ambition takes account of the circumstances following the COVID-19 crisis.

The EU’s industrial strategy, as part of the European Green Deal, is consistent both with the main objective of creating a climate-neutral, circular and clean economy, and the wider Zero Pollution ambition and toxic-free environment goals.

The EU is a party to international agreements aimed at reducing pollution, including the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP Convention), a pan-European framework for reducing air pollution including heavy metals (under the Aarhus Protocol). Releases of mercury are also controlled by the United Nations Environment Programme Minamata Convention.

Picture of a close-up of a metal type letterpress.

Heavy metals: Cadmium, mercury, lead...

Heavy metals accumulate in ecosystems and damage human health. In line with the EU’s commitments under international conventions, specific legislation led to reductions in emissions of heavy metals across Europe from 1990 levels.

Between 2005 and 2020, emissions have continued to decline, with lead emissions decreasing by 49%, mercury emissions by 51% and cadmium emissions by 39% across the EU-27 Member States. In 2020, Germany, Italy and Poland contributed most to heavy metal emissions in the EU.

Phasing out ozone-depleting substances

The EU continues to actively phase out ozone-depleting substances (ODS), in line with its commitment under the Montreal Protocol.

In 2021, the EU’s consumption of controlled substances amounted to 1,176 metric tonnes, up from a negative consumption level of -2,688 metric tonnes in 2020. The consumption of controlled substances, when expressed in metric tonnes, was largely driven by large quantities of carbon tetrachloride that were stockpiled before export.

Alt text: Infographic showing the EU consumption of controlled ozone-depleting substances (ODS) as well as the ozone-depleting potential (ODP) in tonnes from 2006 to 2021 Long description: The infographic shows the EU consumption of controlled ozone-depleting substances (ODS) from 2006 to 2021 in the form of a vertical bar chart. The x-axis represents the year, beginning in 2006 and ending 2021, while the y-axis represents metric tonnes and ODP tonnes from -10,000 to 30,000. A line graph depicting ozone-depleting potential (ODP) in tonnes is superimposed over the bar chart. The values of ozone-depleting substances (ODS) per year are as follows: 2006, roughly 15,000 tonnes; 2007, roughly 14,000 tonnes; 2008, roughly 25,000 tonnes; 2009, roughly 12,000 tonnes; 2010, roughly -1,500 tonnes; 2011, roughly -2,500 tonnes; 2012, roughly 1,500 tonnes; 2013, roughly -3,000 tonnes; 2013, roughly -4,000 tonnes; 2014, roughly -3,500 tonnes; 2015, roughly -4,500 tonnes; 2016, roughly -4,500 tonnes; 2017, roughly -4,500 tonnes; 2018, roughly -1,000 tonnes; 2019, roughly zero tonnes; 2020, roughly -2,500 tonnes; 2021, roughly 1,500 tonnes. The values of ozone-depleting potential (ODP) per year as follows: 2006, roughly 1,000 tonnes; 2007, roughly -2,500 tonnes; 2008, roughly -5,000 tonnes; 2009, roughly 0 tonnes; 2010, roughly -1,500 tonnes; 2011, roughly -2,500 tonnes; 2012, roughly 1,500 tonnes; 2013, roughly -3,000 tonnes; 2014, roughly -3,000 tonnes; 2015, roughly -4,000 tonnes; 2016, roughly -4,500 tonnes; 2017, roughly -4,500 tonnes; 2018, roughly -1,000 tonnes; 2019, roughly 0 tonnes; 2020, roughly -2,500 tonnes; and 2021, roughly -1,500 tonnes.

See EEA indicator for larger version of the graph. It shows the drastic drop from 2009 onwards.

The costs to health and the environment from industrial air pollution

Air pollution from large European industry continues to cause significant damage to the environment, climate and people’s health.

The analysis shows that just a small fraction of the most polluting facilities — many of them coal power plants — causes half of the total damage.

However, the EEA analysis also shows that environmental and health costs of European industry have decreased by a third (-33%) from 2012 to 2021. The EU energy sector has accounted for the vast majority — about 80% — of the total decrease.

How much pollutant does large industry release to nature?

The European Union has strict regulations on industrial pollution. Check out the European Industrial Emissions Portal for detailed information on the largest industrial complexes in Europe, releases and transfers of regulated pollutants to air, water and soil, as well as waste transfers and much more.

Check industrial pollution in your country

Country profiles are available for each of the 33 EEA member countries individually as well as one profile on all 33 EEA member countries and another one for all EU-27 Member States as a group.

These profiles summarise key data related to industry: its relevance with respect to economic contributions, energy and water consumption, as well as air and water emissions and waste generation.

Night image of a series of tall industrial red and white funnels with their lights turned on.

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