Policy action improves air quality in Europe

A new study by the European Environment Agency (EEA) evaluates three key EU policy instruments for air pollution control and finds that they have significantly improved Europe’s air quality and reduced pollution-induced health damage. There is however scope for further improvement, if countries achieve all their binding commitments to reduce emissions.

Industrial combustion and road transport are major sources of air pollutants, accounting for around 50–66 per cent of total emissions of fine particles, acidifying pollutants and ozone-forming gases.

To reduce air pollutant emissions from these sources, the EU has among other things introduced emission standards for road vehicles and directives on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) and Large Combustion Plants (LCP). But how effective have they been?

The study estimates how much these policies have reduced air pollutant emissions and improved Europe’s air quality compared to a “no-policy scenario”. It also explores how much better air quality could be if the policies were fully applied.

Despite a 26 per cent increase in road transport fuel use over the period 1990–2005, the introduction of the road vehicle standards has cut road transport emissions of carbon monoxide (CO) by 80 per cent, non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC) by 68 per cent, nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 40 per cent, and fine particles (PM2.5) by 60 per cent, compared to a no-policy scenario.

Regarding industrial combustion, current emissions of NOx and sulphur dioxide (SO2) are significantly below the no-policy scenario, and the reduction in PM emissions from industrial combustion is more marked than from the road transport sector. Concentrations of acidifying pollutants (NOx, SO2) and fine particles would be around twice as high if no measures had been implemented.

If the latest road vehicle standards were fully applied in all European countries, however, emissions could be reduced much further. This would mostly affect NOx emissions and direct PM2.5 emissions from diesel-fuelled vehicles.

In many countries, NOx and SO2 emissions from combustion plants could be approximately halved if they were brought down to the requirements set out in the LCP legislation, i.e. if emissions were in line with the associated emission levels (AELs) described in the Large Combustion Plant Best Available Techniques (BAT) Reference Document (LCP BREF). High reduction potentials for this sector are mainly found in southern and eastern Europe.

A combination of the “full application” scenarios for the road transport and industrial combustion sectors results in a theoretical potential for further reductions in PM2.5 concentrations in all countries, ranging between 0 and 5 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3), as well as lowered ozone concentrations in a large part of Europe, especially in the Mediterranean area (but slightly increased concentrations some other areas).

Sources: EEA press release from 5 January 2011, and the report Impact of selected policy measures on Europe’s air quality (EEA Report No 8/2010).
Note: The “EEA-32” area is made up of the 27 EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland, and Turkey.

Comparison of the ‘no application’, ‘actual’ and ‘full application’ scenarios for industrial combustion plants (EEA-32 countries) for NOx (upper) and SO2 (lower).

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