Has policy improved Europe's air quality?

News Published 05 Jan 2011 Last modified 21 Jun 2016
2 min read
Photo: © Eric Schmuttenmaer (
In recent decades, the EU has introduced a range of policies to improve air quality by controlling pollutant emissions. A new report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) evaluates three key instruments and finds that they have significantly improved Europe's air quality and reduced pollution-induced health effects. There is scope for even more progress, however, if countries achieve all their binding commitments to reduce emissions.

Industrial combustion and road transport are major sources of air pollutants that cause significant harm to human health and the natural environment. Together, they account for around 50–66 % of total emissions of particulate matter, acidifying pollutants and ozone-forming gases.

The EU introduced the Euro emission standards for road vehicles and directives on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) and Large Combustion Plants (LCP) to reduce air pollutant emissions from these sources. But how effective have they been?

A new EEA study 'Impact of selected policy measures on Europe's air quality' aims to provide an answer, analysing how much these policies have reduced air pollutant emissions and improved Europe's air quality compared to a 'no-policy scenario'. It also explores how much better air quality could be if the policies were fully applied.

Key findings

Road transport

  • Despite a 26 % increase in fuel use over the period 1990–2005, the introduction of the Euro vehicle standards has reduced road transport emissions of carbon monoxide (CO) by around 80 %, non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC) by 68 %, nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 40 % and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) by 60 % compared to a no-policy scenario.
  • Due to lower emissions, concentrations of particulate matter over Europe have also been reduced far below the levels that would have been observed had no policies been in place. This is mainly the case for densely populated areas in western European countries. Such significant reductions have not been observed in eastern Europe.
  • Due to an overall decrease in the emissions of ozone precursors (CO, NMVOC, NOx), high daily ozone concentrations have become less frequent over most parts of Europe, especially in the Mediterranean region.

Industrial combustion

  • Current emissions of NOx and sulphur oxides (SOx) are significantly below the no-policy scenario. The reduction in particulate matter emissions from industrial combustion is more significant than from the road transport sector. The largest reductions have occurred in major industrialised areas such as Germany, Italy's Po Valley, the Netherlands and Poland.
  • Europe's air quality has improved significantly in terms of both acidifying pollutants (NOx, SOx) and fine particulate matter. Concentrations of both pollutants groups would be around twice as high if no measures had been implemented.

The potential of existing policies

  • Emissions could be reduced much further if the latest Euro vehicle standards were fully applied in all European countries. This would mostly affect NOx emissions from gasoline‑fuelled vehicles and direct PM2.5 emissions from diesel‑fuelled vehicles.
  • In many countries, NOx and SO2 emissions could be approximately halved if they were brought down to the requirements set out in the LCP legislation.
  • Concentrations of PM2.5, the pollutant of major concern in terms of health effects, would decrease in most areas if countries reduced emissions to the requirements set out in the LCP legislation. As emissions in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands are already largely consistent with the LCP requirements, high reduction potentials are mainly found in southern and eastern Europe.
  • There is scope for even further improvements in Europe's air quality as many countries have not yet achieved their binding emission reductions under the National Emission Ceilings Directive.