Industrial pollutant releases to air in Europe

Industrial releases of air pollutants that are damaging to human health and the environment decreased between 2010 and 2019 in Europe, with emissions of greenhouse gases (e.g. CO2 and sulphur oxides) and other pollutants (e.g. nitrogen oxides, dust and heavy metals) all declining significantly. The value that industry generated for the European economy during this period increased, however, in line with the goal of the EU industrial strategy: to support the competitiveness of European industry while driving a reduction in emissions, the use of natural resources and the production of waste.

Published: ‒ 25min read

European industry results in the release of pollutants to air. These include greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and acidifying pollutants (e.g. sulphur oxides — SOx), and other pollutants that damage human health and the environment, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (in this case PM10), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) and heavy metals including Cd, Pb and Hg.

To reduce pollutant emissions, the use of natural resources and the generation of waste, EU industrial policy aims to drive a transition to a strong, low-carbon industry based on circular material flows. Monitoring the release of air pollutants is key to tracking progress towards achieving this goal.

Industrial emissions to air are reported under the Greenhouse Gas Monitoring Mechanism Regulation (CO2) and the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR), which covers releases from large industrial facilities involved in only certain activities.

Between 2010 and 2019, industrial releases of SOx and PM10 decreased by 50% in the European Union. Other emissions decreased to a lesser extent: CO2 by 8%, NOx by 25% and heavy metals (Cd, Hg and Pb) by 40% whereas NMVOC increased by 1%. However, data for the last years is still being quality assured and corrected by reporting countries and thus could vary slightly. During the same period, the value that industry generated for the economy — as measured by gross added value (GVA) — increased, indicating that European industry has become less emission intensive, as the ratio of air pollutant releases to the production of industrial goods decreased.

The decrease in industrial pollutant emissions to air can be partly attributed to European regulation, such as the EU Emissions Trading System and the Industrial Emissions Directive, improvements in energy efficiency and abatement technologies, and the relocation of various heavy-polluting and energy-intensive manufacturing industries (such as textile or metal production) to outside Europe.

Emission levels in 2019 dropped significantly from those of 2010 for almost all pollutants in the majority of EU Member States. After the economic downturn in 2008–2009, emission levels continued to decrease. Industrial emissions are very complex in terms of substances to consider, the effects they have on the environment and health and their very different realities across European countries.  

Some patterns can be identified. On the one hand, emissions of pollutants associated primarily with activities that include combustion processes (e.g. electricity producers, iron and steel works, cement plants), are generally decreasing across the board. This refers to emissions of NOx, SOx and PM10. That trend is consistent with the improvement in environmental performance of these industries. Evidence points to EU policy as one of the key drivers of these positive developments.

The pattern for CO2 emissions is similarly decreasing overall, while some countries show a diverging situation. Similarly, emissions of NMVOCs also show a mixed picture.

Heavy metals (Cd, Hg, Pb) are emitted in relatively lower amounts and they have a naturally variable trend over time. Several reasons are behind this, some related to the reporting mechanism (which includes estimations and operates with minimum thresholds), some related to actual developments in that industry. The values for these substances generally decreased in the EU-27, only increasing in eight Member States. Evidence is scarce for the interpretation of these emission data.

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