Industrial pollutant releases to air in Europe

Industrial releases of air pollutants that damage human health and the environment decreased between 2010 and 2020 in Europe. Emissions of greenhouse gases (e.g. carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulphur oxides (SOx)) and other pollutants (e.g. nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM10) and heavy metals) all declined significantly. However, the value that industry generated for the European economy during this period increased up to 2019, in line with the EU industrial strategy goal to support the competitiveness of European industry while driving a reduction in emissions, the use of natural resources and the production of waste.

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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 cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb) and mercury (Hg).

To reduce pollutant emissions, natural resource use and waste generation, 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 only in certain activities.

Between 2010 and 2020, industrial releases of SOx and PM10 decreased by about 70% in the EU. Other emissions decreased to a lesser extent: heavy metals (Cd, Hg and Pb) by 56%, NOx by 41%, NMVOC by 27% and CO2 by 24%. However, data for the most recent years are 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 — measured by gross added value (GVA) — increased up to 2019, indicating that European industry has become less emission intensive as the ratio of air pollutant releases to the production of industrial goods has decreased. The Covid-19 pandemic had different impacts on GVA and emissions to air: while GVA decreased by 7% between 2019 and 2020, emissions of some pollutants (SOx, PM10 and heavy metals) decreased more each year (above 10%) compared to others (emissions of nitrogen oxides were almost stable between 2019 and 2020).

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) outside Europe.

Since 2010, while recovering from the impact of the economic downturn of 2008-2009, emissions levels from the industrial sector decreased at a steady rate for most of the pollutants. Industrial emissions are very complex in terms of substances to consider, their impacts on the environment and health and the 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. This 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 as significant emissions reductions (over 50% since 2010) have occurred in almost all countries that joined the European Union recently.

Similarly, greenhouse gas emissions, in particular CO2, are decreasing overall, although some countries show a diverging situation. Similarly, emissions of NMVOCs also show a slightly mixed picture.

Heavy metals (Cd, Hg, Pb) are emitted in relatively lower amounts and they have a naturally variable trend over time. There are several reasons for this, some related to the reporting mechanism (which includes estimations and operates with minimum thresholds) and others related to actual developments in that industry.

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