Nitrogen oxide emissions still a major problem in Europe

News Published 28 Jun 2012 Last modified 10 Dec 2019
3 min read
Photo: © Simon Forsyth/
Air pollution emitted from sources such as traffic, industry and households is still above internationally agreed limits in many European countries, according to data published today. The accompanying report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) confirms an initial assessment published earlier this year, showing 12 EU Member States exceeded limits under the National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) Directive in 2010.

As emissions can rebound during periods of economic recovery, countries need to make positive efforts to limit any increase of emissions in the future.

Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director

Under the NEC Directive, countries were obliged, by 2010, to meet ‘ceilings’ for four important air pollutants: nitrogen oxides (NOX), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and ammonia (NH3). These pollutants are harmful to both people and the environment, causing respiratory illnesses, acidifying soil and surface water, and damaging vegetation.

Since 2001, Member States have been working towards meeting these ceilings. Today’s publication of official 2010 data from Member States is the first time that those efforts can be measured against the legally binding targets. The findings, based on official preliminary data for 2010 reported by Member States, confirm EEA’s early analysis made in February 2012. Final emissions data for 2010 will be reported by countries at the end of this year.

“All these pollutants contribute to poor air quality, which damages people’s health and the environment,” EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade said. “We should also note that 2010 was a recession year in much of Europe. As emissions can rebound during periods of economic recovery, countries need to make positive efforts to limit any increase of emissions in the future.”

Key findings

  • Nitrogen oxide (NOx) limits were exceeded most frequently, with 12 Member States failing to keep emissions below agreed ceilings. These were Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.
  • Road transport contributes approximately 40 % of total NOx emissions in the EU. Reductions of NOX from this sector over the last two decades have been lower than originally anticipated, according to the report. This is partly because transport has grown more than expected, and partly because the real-world emissions from diesel vehicles are higher than those estimated when the vehicle emission limit standards were set.
  • A lot of progress has been made in reducing sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions in recent decades. SO2 emissions in the EU were more than 40% below the EU’s ceiling for this pollutant, and no Member States exceeded their SO2 ceiling.
  • Spain was the only Member State to report exceeding three of its four emission ceilings (NOX, NMVOC, NH3), followed by Germany (NOX, NMVOC) and Finland (NOX, NH3) with two exceedances each.
  • The EU also has emissions ceilings under the NEC Directive, one being the sum of the individual Member States’ ceilings for each pollutant, while the second is a stricter, specific ceiling for the EU as a whole. Of these, the two EU ceilings for NOx were both exceeded, albeit the first by only a small margin. 

Coming up…

During summer 2012, the EEA will publish data presenting long term emission trends of air pollutants within the EU’s annual report to the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP). Later in the year the EEA will also publish a separate analysis showing to what extent the original objectives in the NEC Directive –  protecting human health and environment – have been achieved.

The European Commission is currently reviewing the European Union’s air quality policy, and, amongst other initiatives, is expected to propose a revised NEC Directive in 2013 at the latest. A revised directive will build on the findings of the policy review and is likely to set objectives for 2020 and beyond for relevant air pollutants.  In the absence of new legislation, however, the NEC Directive remains in force and requires countries to keep emissions below national ceilings in the years beyond 2010.

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