Policy context

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Within the European Union, the Eighth Environment Action Programme (8th EAP) aims to offer political guidance for the EU’s environment and climate change policies for the period 2021-2030, with a view to accelerating the transition to a climate-neutral, clean, resource-efficient and restorative economy. It was preceded by the Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP); an important governance tool with a 2050 vision to guide environment policy across the European Union. The EU acts at many levels to reduce exposure to air pollution through: legislation; co-operation with sectors responsible for air pollution; national and regional authorities and non-government organisations; and research. EU policies aim to reduce exposure to air pollution by reducing emissions and setting limit and target values for air quality.

Clean air policies

The EU sets standards to avoid the build-up of excessive pollution concentrations. As part of the European Green Deal, the EU is revising these standards to align them more closely with the recommendations of the World Health Organization (the latest WHO air quality guidelines were published on 22 September 2021). The EU also aims to improve overall EU legislation for clean air, building on the lessons learnt from the 2019 evaluation —‘fitness check’ — of the ambient air quality directives.

In 2013, the European Commission adopted a clean air policy package for Europe. This package of measures aims to achieve full compliance with existing air quality legislation by 2020 and further improve Europe’s air quality by 2030 and beyond. 

It includes:

  • an updated National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive, with emission ceilings for the years from 2010 onwards and new national emission reduction commitments for the period 2020-2029, as well as for 2030 and beyond.  
  • a new directive on medium combustion plants, designed to limit emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter from medium sized combustion installations. The directive proposes emission limit values for new and existing installations.
  • additional actions focusing on air quality in cities, national and local actions supported by EU funds, as well as a reinforced research and innovation agenda. 

More information on the EU's approach to managing air pollution is available from the European Commission's Directorate-General for the Environment .

Emissions of air pollutants

At Member State level, the new National Emission reduction Commitments Directive (NEC Directive, (2016/2284/EU), adopted in 2016, sets reduction commitments for emissions of five key air pollutants (nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, non-methane volatile organic compounds, ammonia and fine particulate matter) that harm human health and the environment.

Other key EU legislation is targeted at reducing emissions of air pollutants from specific sources, for example:

Internationally, the issue of air pollution emissions is also being addressed by the UNECE Air onvention (previously called the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, the LRTAP Convention) and its protocols. The Gothenburg ‘multi-pollutant’ protocol under the Air Convention contains national emission ceilings that, for the EU Member States, are either equal to or less ambitious than those in the EU NEC Directive (2001/81/EC). The Protocol was amended in 2012 to include national emission reduction commitments to be achieved in 2020 and beyond, including fine particulate matter.

Air quality

The EU’s air quality directives (the 2008 Directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe and the 2004 Directive on heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in ambient air) address air pollution under the Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution. Both describe the basic principles concerning the assessment and management of air quality and set pollutant concentration thresholds that shall not be exceeded. In case of exceedances, authorities must develop and implement air quality management plans.

New requirements with regard to the reporting and exchange of air quality information apply as of 1 January 2014, following the approval in 2011 of a Commission Decision on the reciprocal exchange of information and reporting

More information on air pollution policies and legislation: European Commission Directorate-General for the Environment


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