Air pollution: breaches of legal limits continued through 2010 and 2011

Change language
News Published 18 Mar 2013 Last modified 21 Jun 2016
3 min read
Photo: © Heinrik Betner
Air pollutant emissions were above legal limits in eight Member States in 2011, preliminary data shows. In 2010, 12 Member States exceeded these limits, according to final official data reported under the European Union’s National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive.

Although the new data shows some clear improvement between 2010 and 2011, Europe still needs to work hard to reduce air pollution. Emissions from transport are still a major problem, particularly in some cities.

Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director

Several air pollutants are still harming health and the environment in Europe. The most serious air pollutants are particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen dioxide, a fact which is also reflected in the new version of AirBase launched today by the European Environment Agency (EEA). AirBase provides publicly-available air quality information for Europe.

"Although the new data shows some clear improvement between 2010 and 2011, Europe still needs to work hard to reduce air pollution," EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade said. "Emissions from transport are still a major problem, particularly in some cities."

Air emissions limits breached by many countries

The NEC Directive covers four main air pollutants: sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) and ammonia (NH3). These pollutants can cause respiratory problems, contribute to the acidification of soil and surface water, and damage vegetation.

An early analysis of the official ‘final’ 2010 data confirms twelve Member States exceeded their respective NOx ceilings. According to preliminary data, seven of these Member States continued to breach these NOx ceilings in 2011, in some instances by significant amounts. The status for 30 European countries is shown on the chart below. The data can be explored in depth in the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) interactive chart. Germany was the only Member State to have exceeded three of four emission ceilings under the directive in both 2010 and 2011.

Road transport contributes approximately 40 % of total EU-27 NOx emissions and is one of the main factors behind the large number of NOx exceedances. Reductions of NOx from this sector over the last two decades have not been as large as originally anticipated. This is partly because transport demand has been higher than expected, and partly because real-world driving conditions have sometimes led to higher emissions than those anticipated with vehicle emission standards.

AirBase – a rich source of air quality information

A preliminary analysis of the 2011 air quality data in AirBase indicates that European citizens often breathe air that does not meet the air quality requirements, a problem which is particularly serious in cities. As a new feature this year, the AirBase release is accompanied by interactive maps showing the measured air pollutant concentration values throughout Europe. The maps provide an overview of the extent of the problem areas and locations where air quality standards are exceeded.

Annual mean concentrations of Particulate Matter (PM10) in Europe

View Larger Map

AirBase contains air quality monitoring data and information made available by 38 countries throughout Europe. The latest Airbase version contains more than 2 billion records reaching from 1973 to 2011 and will enable an updated assessment of the status and trends in air quality in Europe.

Understanding air pollution and its impacts

One aim of the current review of EU air policy is to better understand air pollution in Europe and its impacts to support future policy initiatives. Together with the new version of AirBase, the information on air pollutant emissions is an important resource for Europe’s air policies. EEA’s annual ‘NEC Directive Status’ and ‘Air Quality in Europe’ reports, to be published by mid-2013, will further analyse the recent data reported by EU Member States.

Following the review of EU air policy, the European Commission is expected to publish a proposal for a revised NEC Directive in the autumn of this year, potentially calling for stricter emission ceilings for 2020 or beyond in order to further protect health and the environment. For the first time, a ceiling for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) may be introduced. In the absence of new legislation, however, the NEC Directive remains in force and requires Member States to keep emissions below national ceilings also in future years.

UPDATE: New information on NEC Directive compliance is available in the NEC Directive status report 2012, published on 23 May 2013. The report includes final emission data for the year 2010, and provisional estimates of emissions for 2011.


Geographic coverage