Air legislation in Europe

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Article Published 15 Apr 2013 Last modified 11 May 2021
5 min read
Photo: © Jean-Jacques Poirault
Air pollution is not the same everywhere. Different pollutants are released into the atmosphere from a wide range of sources. Once in the atmosphere, they can transform into new pollutants and spread around the world. Designing and implementing policies to address this complexity are not easy tasks. Below is an overview of air legislation in the European Union.

The photograph was taken from the top of the Montparnasse tower during an air pollution episode of NO2 above threshold values recorded in the winter of 1997–1998.

Jean-Jacques Poirault, France (ImaginAIR)

The amount of pollutants emitted into the air we breathe has been greatly reduced since the EU introduced policies and measures concerning air quality in the 1970s. Air pollution emissions from many of the major sources including transport, industry, and power generation are now regulated and are generally declining, albeit not always to the extent envisaged.

Targeting pollutants

One way that the EU has achieved this improvement is by setting legally binding and non-binding limits for the whole Union for certain pollutants dispersed in the air. The EU has set standards for particulate matter (PM) of certain sizes, ozone, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, lead, and other pollutants that may have a detrimental effect on human health or ecosystems. Key pieces of legislation that set pollutant limits across Europe include the 2008 Directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe (2008/50/EC), and the 1996 Framework Directive on ambient air quality assessment and management (96/62/EC).

Another approach to legislating for improvements to air quality is through the setting of national annual emission limits for specific pollutants. In these cases, countries are responsible for introducing the measures needed to ensure that their emission levels are below the ceiling set for the relevant pollutant.

The Gothenburg Protocol to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP), and the EU National Emission Ceilings Directive (2001/81/EC) both set annual emissions limits for European countries on air pollutants, including those pollutants responsible for acidification, eutrophication, and ground-level ozone pollution. The Gothenburg Protocol was revised in 2012. And the National Emissions Ceilings Directive is up for review and revision in 2013.

Targeting sectors

In addition to setting air quality standards for specific pollutants and annual country-level ceilings, European legislation is also designed to target particular sectors that act as sources of air pollution.

Emissions of air pollutants from the industrial sector are regulated, by among others, the 2010 Industrial Emissions Directive (2010/75/EU) and the 2001 Directive on the limitation of emissions of certain pollutants into the air from Large Combustion Plants (2001/80/EC).

Vehicle emissions have been regulated through a series of performance and fuel standards, including the 1998 Directive relating to the quality of petrol and diesel fuels (98/70/EC) and vehicle emission standards, known as the Euro standards.

The Euro 5 and 6 standards cover emissions from light vehicles including passenger cars, vans, and commercial vehicles. The Euro 5 standard came into force on 1 January 2011, and requires all new cars covered by the legislation to emit less particulates and nitrogen oxides than the limits set. Euro 6, which will enter into force in 2015, will impose stricter limits on nitrogen oxides emitted by diesel engines.

There are also international agreements concerning the emissions of air pollutants in other areas of transportation, such as the International Maritime Organization’s 1973 Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), with its additional protocols, which regulate sulphur dioxide emissions from shipping.

ImaginAIR: Contamination

(c) Javier Arcenillas, ImaginAIR/EEA

"Although fortunately there are still places in Romania almost wild and spectacular, where nature is unstained by the hand of man, in more urbanized areas there is an obvious ecological problem."
Javier Arcenillas, Spain

Putting the pieces together

A pollutant is usually regulated by more than one piece of legislation. Particulate matter, for example, is directly addressed by three European legal measures (Directives on ambient air quality and emissions of air pollutants, and the Euro limits on road vehicle emissions) and two international conventions (LRTAP and MARPOL). Some of the PM precursors are tackled by other legal measures.

The implementation of these laws are also spread over a period of time and achieved in stages. For fine particles, the air quality directive sets 25 μg/m3 as a ‘target value’ to be met by 1 January 2010. The same threshold is set to become a ‘limit value’ by 2015, entailing additional obligations.

For some sectors, air policies might first cover certain pollutants in limited parts of Europe. In September 2012, the European Parliament adopted the revisions that brought the EU’s standards on sulphur emissions by ships in line with the International Maritime Organization’s standards from 2008. By 2020, the sulphur limit will be 0.5 % in all the seas around the EU.

For the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel in so-called ‘Sulphur Emission Control Areas’, the European Parliament set an even stricter sulphur limit of 0.1 % by 2015. Considering that standard marine fuel contains 2 700 times more sulphur than conventional diesel for cars, it is clear that this legislation gives strong reasons to the shipping sector to develop and use cleaner fuels.

Implementation on the ground

Current European air-quality legislation is based on the principle that EU Member States divide their territories into a number of management zones in which countries are required to assess air quality using measurement or modelling approaches. Most big cities are declared to be such zones. If air‑quality standards are exceeded in a zone, the Member State has to report to the European Commission and explain the reasons.

The countries are then required to develop local or regional plans describing how they intend to improve the air quality. They could for example establish so-called low-emission zones that restrict access for more polluting vehicles. Cities can also encourage a shift in transport to less polluting modes including walking, cycling, and public transport. They can also ensure that industrial and commercial combustion sources are fitted with emission‑control equipment, according to the latest, best-available technology.

Research is also critical. Not only does research offer us new technologies, it also improves our knowledge of air pollutants and their negative effects on our health and ecosystems. Integrating the latest knowledge into our laws and actions will help us to continue to improve Europe’s air.

King's Park Copenhagen

(c) Gülçin Karadeniz

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