Measures to reduce emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases: the potential for synergies

Briefing Published 10 Dec 2020 Last modified 10 Dec 2020
10 min read
Photo: © Perry Wunderlich, REDISCOVER Nature /EEA
Actions taken to reduce emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases often address the same economic sectors but are reported separately under different EU legislation. This briefing presents an overview of the latest policies and measures reported by Member States to tackle air pollution, as required under the National Emission reduction Commitments (NEC) Directive. It includes an analysis of synergies with the policies reported under the Regulation on a mechanism for monitoring and reporting greenhouse gas emissions (Monitoring Mechanism Regulation), highlighting the importance of coherence between these domains.

Key messages 

  • Policies and measures to reduce emissions of three important air pollutants, fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and ammonia, reported by Member States under the National Emission reduction Commitments (NEC) Directive, focus predominantly on actions taken in the agricultural, transport and energy sectors.
  • One third of national policies and measures to reduce emissions of air pollutants under the NEC Directive have links to national policies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions under the Monitoring Mechanism Regulation. 
  • Member States are more likely to report quantified emission reductions for those policies linked to greenhouse gas mitigation and which have been selected for adoption at national level.
  • Promoting consistency in reporting policies and measures on air pollution, energy and climate change can reduce red tape, foster policy coherence and support the identification of synergies.

Policies and measures to tackle air pollution

The National Emission reduction Commitments (NEC) Directive (EU, 2016) aims to deliver levels of air quality that do not harm human health or the environment. Achieving the national commitments to reduce emissions is key to meeting the objective of the clean air programme for Europe (EC, 2013) to reduce premature deaths resulting from exposure to air pollution and to delivering the zero-pollution ambition under the European Green Deal (EC, 2019). Moreover, there is potential to tackle air pollution in synergy with efforts to mitigate greenhouse gases under the EU’s climate and energy policies.

EU Member States [1] were required to report a national air pollution control programme (NAPCP) by 1 April 2019. This included policies and measures (PaMs) that Member States selected as relevant for fulfilling their commitments to reduce emissions set for the periods 2020-2029 and from 2030 onwards.

Twenty-four countries reported their NAPCPs (EC, 2020a), with 21 reporting additional PaMs that they intend to put in place to meet their emission reduction commitments. Two countries — Finland and the Netherlands indicated that they do not have any additional PaMs to report, meaning that they do not need any additional policies to meet their reduction commitments [2]. It should be noted that, in the absence of a strict definition of what constitutes a single policy or measure, Member States may differ in their approach. Some may have chosen to divide actions into separate PaMs, whereas others may consider one policy or measure to have multiple components and a broader scope. EU Member States altogether reported 602 single PaMs. Of the Member States that reported PaMs, the number of individual PaMs ranged from 11 (Cyprus) to 72 (Belgium).

According to a separate analysis of emissions inventories and projections reported under the NEC Directive, the majority of countries are unlikely to meet their 2020 emission reduction commitments for nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH3) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) (EC, 2020a). Moreover, the effort required to reduce current emissions to meet the 2030 emission reduction commitments will be challenging (EEA, 2020).

Most of the measures aim to reduce emissions of NH3, NOx and PM2.5

This is reflected by the focus of the PaMs reported: the majority focused on three pollutants, NH3, NOx and PM2.5. Action is anticipated across three sectors making significant contributions to air pollution, namely the transport, energy and agricultural sectors.

Figure 1 shows, for each Member State, the distribution by sector of PaMs that have been considered, but not necessarily already selected, for adoption at national level. Some Member States have chosen to target specific sectors for emission reductions. For example, Croatia and Germany are aiming more than half of their PaMs at the agricultural sector, while Estonia, Malta and Portugal are focusing roughly two thirds of their PaMs on transport.

The reduction in NOx emissions required to achieve the 2030 reduction commitments is a major challenge (EEA 2020). This is the case in seven Member States, namely Belgium, Denmark, France, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal and the United Kingdom. More than one third of the PaMs reported by these countries target NOx emissions from the transport sector, which was responsible for 47 % of NOx emissions in the EU-28 in 2018.

Measures to mitigate air pollution focus predominantly on the agriculture, transport and energy sectors.

In 2018, agriculture accounted for 93 % of NH3 emissions in the EU-28. Emissions of NH3 are not declining at the same pace as the other main pollutants. Twelve countries have focused more than a quarter of their PaMs on reducing emissions from agriculture, and 60 % of the PaMs focused on the agricultural sector, anticipating the establishment or further development of a national advisory code of good agriculture practice (ETC/ATNI, 2020).

Figure 1. The sectoral focus of PaMs considered by EU Member States in 2019 under the NEC Directive (in % and absolute numbers) 

Note: Member States could report multiple sectors within the same PaMs, so the sum of percentages in rows may exceed 100 %. 
More Information

Linking air pollution and climate mitigation actions 

The NEC Directive aims to work in synergy with climate and energy policies. However, the scope of reporting for PAMs differs slightly. Under the NEC Directive, countries only report two types of PaMs:

  1. PaMs that have been ‘considered’ but not necessarily selected for adoption at national level;
  2. PaMs ‘selected for adoption’, but not yet adopted into legislation

In contrast, under the Monitoring Mechanism Regulation (MMR), Member States are required to report all climate mitigation PaMs that they are currently drafting, have completed, have adopted and are planning to implement. When reporting air pollution PaMs, Member States had the option to flag whether they were related to existing PaMs aiming to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases, with this information reported on a voluntary basis.

In 2019, Member States reported additional PaMs to tackle air pollution under the NEC Directive, as well as a new set of PaMs under the MMR. This allowed for a comparison of air pollution and climate PaMs to understand the extent to which Member States are delivering consistent approaches that take advantage of possible synergies. The comparison revealed that strong action is focused on the energy and transport sectors under policies to both reduce emissions of air pollutants and mitigate greenhouse gases. In contrast, in the air pollution domain, more attention is given to the agricultural sector and to the need for further action to meet emissions reduction commitments for NH3 (ETC/ATNI, 2020).

Figure 2 presents an overview of the single PaMs reported under the NEC Directive as selected for adoption, representing 379 out of a total of the 602 PaMs reported by 15 countries. It shows the share of PaMs aimed at delivering on the objectives of the NEC Directive for which the reporting Member State identified links to climate change. It also shows the main air pollutants that the PaMs target and the fraction of PaMs that are reported with quantified emission reductions.  

One third of national policies and measures to reduce emissions of air pollutants under the NEC Directive has links with national policies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions

The PaMs selected for adoption are consistently aimed at reducing emissions of the main air pollutants, such as NH3 and NOx, while also often aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (mainly CO2 and CH4). One third of the PaMs selected for adoption have either a connection to, or are the same as those reported under, the MMR for climate mitigation. Of these, over a third are targeted at reducing emissions from transport and a third focus on the energy sector, while a fifth of the PaMs are focused on the agricultural sector. However, the potential intersection between the two sets of PaMs (for climate and for clean air purposes) may be even greater, as Member States’ reporting of interlinkages across the two policy domains was voluntary and may be incomplete.

Air pollution reduction PaMs that were linked to climate mitigation policies tended to be reported together with more information on the expected reductions in emissions. Approximately 80 % of the PaMs linked to climate change mitigation contain at least one quantified emission reduction for one of the main air pollutants. In contrast, for those PaMs not reported as being linked to climate change mitigation, around 60 % were reported together with quantified emission reductions. Only three countries — Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom — reported quantified emission reductions for all of the PaMs that they reported as having been selected for adoption.

It was not possible to carry out an extensive analysis of the expected emission reductions owing to the manner in which the information was reported [3]. Nevertheless, based on the emission reductions quantified and reported by Member States, the expected total reductions by 2030 in emissions of NH3, NOx and PM2.5 from three major polluting sectors, namely agriculture, transport and energy , are estimated as follows: 

  • for NH3, a reduction about 315 kt
  • for NOx, a reduction about 380 kt
  • for PM2.5, a reduction about 50 kt. 

It is important to note that these estimates capture only the impact on emissions of additional PaMs selected for adoption to meet emission reduction commitments under the NEC Directive, and so they do not capture the impact of all PaMs in place at national level. In addition, these figures represent an underestimate of the total reductions likely to result, given that emission reductions were not reported for all additional PaMs. Therefore, these estimates are incomplete and subject to uncertainty.


Figure 2. PaMs selected for adoption, showing: the proportion of PaMs linked to policies to mitigate greenhouse gases; the focus of the PaMs in terms of pollutants; the number of PaMs reported with quantified emission reductions; and the number of PaMs reported by country

Note: NMVOC, non-methane volatile organic compound 


Unfortunately, information on expected greenhouse gas emission reductions was generally not reported, even for those policies that were linked to greenhouse gas mitigation. Only one country, Denmark, provided some quantification in three of its policies and measures for an expected CO2 reduction of at least 5 000 kt/year in 2030.

Among the clean air PaMs with a reported intersection with the MMR, it was possible to match 93 with policies reported under the MMR. Many of them overlap almost entirely, with minor differences in wording. In other cases, the main difference is in the level of aggregation, whereby a single NEC Directive policy or measure may be related to multiple MMR PaMs, or vice versa. Spain was the only Member State to report all of its additional air pollution PaMs as related to national policies to mitigate climate change.

Aligning action to mitigate air pollution with action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions is critical to fostering synergies in key sectors, including agriculture, energy and transport

This initial analysis shows that countries do see links between air pollution, energy and climate change action. A further integration of the reporting systems could foster coherence across these policy domains and support the identification of synergies. Such policy coherence could support efforts to achieve the objectives of the European Climate Law (EC, 2020b), proposed by the European Commission, and the forthcoming zero pollution action plan.

The implementation of the Regulation on the Governance of the Energy Union and Climate Action (EU) 2018/1999 (EU, 2018), which will repeal and replace the MMR, aims to increase synergies between climate and energy policy reporting and establish links to air pollution (EU, 2018). The recent implementing regulation (EU, 2020) represents a key step towards greater consistency in the reporting of PaMs under the NEC Directive and the new energy and climate regulation. Successful implementation of these provisions will enhance the integration of national systems and foster policy coherence and effectiveness across multiple domains.


More information

Access the complete data set reported by Member States in the EEA’s online data viewer on policies and measures.

Policies and measures reported under the MMR regulation are accessible in this EEA data viewer


[1] The analysis presented in this briefing is based on information reported in 2019 when the United Kingdom was still part of the EU. 

[2] One country (Austria) reported its policies and measures without using the recommended tool and it is not included in this evaluation. 

[3] Member States could report an absolute value for the emission reductions, a range of values, or indicate where no quantification was available or where it was being reported in a package of PaMs.


EC, 2013, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘A Clean Air Programme For Europe’ (COM(2013) 918 final.

EC, 2019, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘The European Green Deal’ (COM(2019) 640 final.

EC, 2020a, Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the progress made on the implementation of Directive (EU) 2016/2284 on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants (COM(2020) 266 final.

EC, 2020b, Amended proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on establishing the framework for achieving climate neutrality and amending Regulation (EU) 2018/1999 (European Climate Law) (COM(2020) 563 final.

EEA, 2020, National Emission reduction Commitments Directive reporting status 2020, EEA Briefing, European Environment Agency.

ETC/ATNI, 2020, National policies to tackle air pollution and their synergies with climate change, European Topic Centre on Air Pollution, Transport, Noise and Industry.

EU, 2016, Directive (EU) 2016/2284 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 December 2016 on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants, amending Directive 2003/35/EC and repealing Directive 2001/81/EC  (OJ L 344, 17.12.2016, p. 1-31).

EU 2018, Regulation (EU) 2018/1999 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2018 on the Governance of the Energy Union and Climate Action (OJ L 328, 21.12.2018. p. 1-77).

EU, 2020, Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2020/1208 of 7 August 2020 on structure, format, submission processes and review of information reported by Member States pursuant to Regulation (EU) 2018/1999 (OJ L 278, 26.8.2020, p. 1-32).


Briefing no. 19/2020
Title: Measures to reduce emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases: the potential for synergies
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