Emissions of the main air pollutants in Europe

The air pollutants ammonia (NH3), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOX), fine particulate matter (PM) and sulphur oxides (SOX) damage human health and the environment, so reducing their emissions is a priority of both EU and international air quality legislation. Since 2005, emissions of all five pollutants have declined and, by 2012, the emission ceilings set for NH3, NMVOCs, NOX and SOX had been met. However, based on progress so far, it is clear that more effort, particularly in the transport, energy and agriculture sectors, is essential if the EU is to fulfil longer term reduction commitments.

Published: ‒ 25min read

Anthropogenic emissions of the main air pollutants — NH3, non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOX), fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and sulphur oxides (SOX) — contribute to air quality problems in Europe, with damaging effects on human health, vegetation and ecosystems. To address this, and meet the EU’s obligations under the Gothenburg Protocol of the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP Convention), the National Emission reduction Commitments Directive (NECD) aims to reduce emissions of these pollutants.

The 2001 National Emission Ceilings Directive set emission ceilings for SOX, NOX, NMVOCs and NH3, to be achieved between 2010 and 2019, and the amended NECD set more ambitious legally binding reduction commitments for all five air pollutants, compared with 2005 levels, for 2020-2029 and 2030 onwards.

Between 2005 and 2019, emissions of four of these pollutants declined considerably in the EU-27 Member States: SOX emissions by 76%, NOX by 42%, NMVOCs by 29% and PM2.5 by 29%. Decreases in emissions from the energy, industry and transport sectors are largely responsible for these declines, partly as a result of sector-specific emission limit values set by other EU legislation, such as the Industrial Emissions Directive, the Large Combustion Plant Directive and Euro standards for vehicles. NH3 emissions also declined, but by only 8% overall, with emissions even increasing slightly between 2013 and 2017. This reflects a lack of progress in the agriculture sector, which is responsible for more than 90% of NH3 emissions.

By 2012, emissions of SOX, NOX, NMVOCs and NH3 were well below the NECD emission ceilings. However, based on progress made so far, the EU is not on track to meet its reduction commitments for 2020-2029 and even less so for 2030, with NH3, NOx and PM2.5 presenting particular challenges. Therefore, significant effort and more effective policies, particularly in the transport, agriculture and energy sectors, are essential if the EU is to meet its long-term emission reduction commitments and fulfil the ambition of its clean air programme, to reduce air pollution to levels that do not pose risks to human health or the environment.

Under the amended NECD, all EU Member States must report annual emissions information for the five main air pollutants. Between 2005 and 2019, all Member States reduced emissions of NMVOCs, NOX, SOX and PM2.5, while NH3 emissions increased in Latvia, Austria, Ireland, and Estonia.

By 2019, all Member States were in compliance with their NECD emission ceilings for NOX, SOX, and NMVOCs. Emissions of NH3 were above ceiling levels in four Member States, with Spain and Croatia reporting the highest exceedances in percentage terms (33% and 23%) followed by Ireland and Czechia.

Reducing NH3 emissions will continue to be a major challenge. Almost all Member States need to lower emissions to reach their 2030 commitments, and nine Member States need to lower emissions by more than 10%. All Member States except Estonia need to reduce NOx emissions. For many countries the required decrease is significant, with 10 countries requiring reductions of more than 30% and Malta a reduction of more than 50%. The majority of countries (19) need to take action to reduce PM2.5 emissions. Three Member States (Czechia, Hungary and Romania) need to reduce PM2.5 emissions by more than 50%, while an additional seven Member States need to reduce emissions by more than 30%. Significant action will also be needed in several Member States to cut SO2 and NMVOC emissions.

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