The challenge of reducing industrial pollution

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Article Published 15 Oct 2020 Last modified 29 Aug 2023
5 min read
Photo: © Carolina Pimenta on Unsplash
Industrial pollution in Europe is decreasing, thanks to a blend of regulation, developments in manufacturing and environmental initiatives. However, industry continues to pollute and moving towards zero pollution in this sector is an ambitious challenge.

We can categorise pollution by where we find it — in air, water or soil — or we can look at different pollution types, such as chemicals, noise or light. Another way to look at pollution is to go to its sources. Some pollution sources are spread out, such as cars, agriculture and buildings, but others can be better assessed as individual emission points. Many of these point sources are large installations, such as factories and power plants.

Industry is a key component of Europe’s economy. According to Eurostat, in 2018, it accounted for 17.6 % of gross domestic product (GDP) and directly employed 36 million people. At the same time, industry also accounts for more than half of the total emissions of some key air pollutants and greenhouse gases, as well as other important environmental impacts, including the release of pollutants to water and soil, the generation of waste and energy consumption.

Air pollution is often associated with the burning of fossil fuels. This obviously applies to power plants but also to many other industrial activities that may have their own onsite electricity or heat production, such as iron and steel manufacturing or cement production. Some activities generate dust that contributes to particulate matter concentrations in the air, whereas solvent use, for example in metal processing or chemical production, may lead to emissions of polluting organic compounds.

Industrial air emission trends

Air emissions from industry in Europe have decreased over recent years. Between 2007 and 2017, overall emissions of sulphur oxides (SOx) declined by 54 %, nitrogen oxides (NOx) by more than one third and greenhouse gases from industry, including power plants, by 12 % [The European environment — state and outlook 2020, pp. 274-275].

These improvements in environmental performance by European industry have occurred for a number of reasons, including stricter environmental regulation, improvements in energy efficiency, a move towards less polluting types of manufacturing processes and voluntary schemes to reduce environmental impact.

For many years, environmental regulation has limited the adverse impacts of industrial activities on human health and the environment. Key EU measures targeting industrial emissions include the Industrial Emissions Directive, which covers about 52 000 of the largest industrial plants, and the Medium Combustion Plants Directive.

The EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), meanwhile, limits greenhouse gas emissions from more than 12 000 power generation and manufacturing installations in 31 countries. The EU ETS covers around 45 % of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions.

However, despite these improvements, industry is still responsible for a significant burden on our environment in terms of pollution and waste generation.

Public accountability — the E-PRTR and transparency of industrial emissions data

The European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) was set up in 2006 to enhance public access to environmental information.

In essence, the E-PRTR enables citizens and stakeholders to learn about pollution in all corners of Europe, who the top polluters are and whether or not pollutant emission trends are improving.

The E-PRTR covers more than 34 000 facilities across 33 European countries. E-PRTR data show, for each facility and year, information concerning the amount of pollutants released to air, water and land, as well as off-site transfers of waste and pollutants in waste water. E-PRTR data are freely available on a dedicated, interactive website. The website archives historical data on releases and transfers of 91 pollutants across 65 economic activities.

Moreover, the E-PRTR is now integrated with wider reporting under the Industrial Emissions Directive, including further information for large combustion plants. Together with the European Commission, the EEA is currently working on a new website to improve access to these data and information.

Counting the costs of industrial air pollution

In order to account for the external costs of air pollution, an individual pollutant’s adverse impacts on human health and the environment are expressed in a common metric, a monetary value, which has been developed through cooperation between different scientific and economic disciplines.

Damage cost estimates are just that — estimates. However, when considered alongside other sources of information, they can support decisions by drawing attention to the implicit trade-offs in decision‑making, such as the cost-benefit analyses used to inform impact assessments and subsequent legislation.

The EEA estimated in 2014 that the aggregated cost of damage over the 5-year period 2008-2012 caused by emissions from E-PRTR industrial facilities was at least EUR 329 billion (2005 value) and rising. What is perhaps even more striking in this analysis is that about half of the damage costs occurred as a result of emissions from only 147, or 1 %, of the 14 000 facilities in the data set.

The majority of the quantified damage costs is caused by emissions of the main air pollutants and carbon dioxide. Although damage cost estimates associated with heavy metal and organic pollutant emissions are significantly lower, they still cause hundreds of millions of euros in harm to health and the environment and can cause significant adverse impacts on the local scale. The EEA is currently working on a new study that will update these figures.

Reducing industrial pollution — assessment, legislation and implementation

The EEA regularly assesses trends in industrial pollution in Europe based on E-PRTR and other data. These assessments show that industrial pollution has decreased over the past decade for emissions to both air and water. Existing and incoming EU policy instruments are expected to further reduce industrial emissions, but pollution is likely to continue to have adverse impacts on human health and the environment in the future.

A strong, growing, low-carbon industry based on circular material flows is part of the EU industrial policy strategy. The goal is to create a growing industrial sector that draws less and less on natural resources, reduces pollutant emissions to air, water and land, and generates decreasing amounts of waste.

Meanwhile, other EU legislation sets more concrete air emission reduction targets, such as the National Emission Ceilings Directive and the Industrial Emissions Directive, which aim to achieve the ambitious prevention and reduction of emissions, in particular through the continuous uptake of so-called best available techniques (BATs).

According to a recent EEA analysis, using best available techniques and implementing the more ambitious targets of the Industrial Emissions Directive would result in substantial emission reductions: 91 % for sulphur dioxide, 82 % for particulate matter and 79 % for nitrogen oxides.

Fully implementing these directives would help the EU achieve environmental objectives, such as those on air and water quality. However, the emission-related directives often act independently and there is clear scope for further integration of the environmental objectives into the EU’s industrial policy. Moving towards zero pollution will require even more robust legislation, implementation and monitoring to ensure that the industries of tomorrow are both clean and sustainable.

Plastic pollution

Plastics have brought many benefits to our daily lives but the problem is that these products never truly disappear. Therefore, we should perhaps think about plastics as a type of pollutant from the point of their production and prevent plastic products and waste from leaking into the environment.

Source: Reducing loss of resources from waste management is key to strengthening the circular economy in Europe; EEA Infographic.


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