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Binding EU air pollution emission limits still breached

By: Christer Ågren

As of 2010, the EU’s National Emission Ceilings (NEC) directive requires member states to meet national emission limits for their total emissions of four important air pollutants: nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH₃), sulphur dioxide (SO₂) and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs).

Official emissions data for 2010–2018 reported to the European Environment Agency (EEA) shows however that five countries were still in breach of their limits for NH₃, and one country (Czechia) exceeded its NMVOC ceiling. Germany and Spain have breached their NH₃ ceilings for nine years running. Moreover, in 2018, Croatia, Denmark and Ireland were in non-compliance with their NH₃ limits.

According to the EEA, emissions from agriculture – mainly from the use of fertilisers and the handling of animal manure – were responsible for excessive NH₃ emissions. Emissions of ammonia reduce air quality by increasing the levels of health-damaging secondary particulate matter (PM2.5). Ammonia also disrupts land and water ecosystems through eutrophication – the oversupply of nitrogen nutrients with resulting impacts on biodiversity – which currently affects more than two-thirds of the total ecosystem area in the EU.

Between 2017 and 2018, ammonia emissions increased in six member states. But for the EU as a whole they came down by 1.6 per cent, mainly due to reductions in Germany and Italy, reported the EEA.

The emission limits were set in the 2001 NEC directive and are applicable from 2010 until 2019. In 2016, a revised NEC directive was adopted that sets new national emission reduction commitments that are applicable in two steps, from 2020 and 2030, respectively (see AN 1/2017, p.7). Moreover, a fifth pollutant (particulate matter, PM2.5) was included in the revised directive.

With the adoption of the new NEC directive in 2016 came a so-called flexibility mechanism that allows member states under certain circumstances to “adjust” downwards their reported emissions for compliance assessment with the national ceilings. This also includes retroactive adjustment for the 2010–2019 period. Following a review and possible approval of member states’ applications by the European Commission, the number of countries deemed to exceed one or more emission ceilings could decrease.

The lack of ambition of the new NEC directive, especially regarding the 2020 reduction commitments, has been strongly criticised by environmental organisations. The EEA analysis now shows that in 2018, the aggregated EU-28 emissions for four of the five pollutants were already below their respective targets for 2020. Only emissions of NOx are slightly above the 2020 target.

Looking at individual countries, the 2018 emission levels suggest that more than half of the countries are likely to attain the emission reduction commitments for the 2020–2029 time period. But more effort will be needed in some countries, especially on NOx, PM2.5 and NH₃ emissions.

The slowdown in economic activity in 2020 associated with the COVID-19 lockdowns is expected to lower emissions of several pollutants and may result in more countries meeting their 2020 commitments. However, the EEA notes that without additional efforts, such COVID-19 related reductions might be reversed as the economy starts to recover.

Moving on to the targets for 2030, additional efforts are clearly needed for all pollutants if the EU is to achieve its 2030 emission reduction commitments. The required percentage reductions from 2018 emissions are 38% for NOx; 32% for PM2.5; 25% for SO₂; 15% for NMVOCs, and 14% for NH₃.

The EEA concludes that all member states need to lower their 2018 emissions by more than ten per cent for at least one pollutant. In summary:

  • All countries need to reduce NOx emissions, and 16 of these must cut emissions by more than 30 per cent. Germany and Malta will need to halve emissions.
  • Cyprus, Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Romania will need to halve PM2.5 emissions, while Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain will need to reduce PM2.5 emissions by more than 30 per cent.
  • Reducing NH₃ emissions will continue to be a major challenge. Half of the countries will need to lower emissions by more than 10 per cent to reach their 2030 commitments. Strong action is required to reduce emissions from the agricultural sector.
  • Significant action will be needed in 15 member states to reduce emissions of SO₂ and NMVOCs.

Under the NEC directive, member states have to produce national air pollution control programmes (NAPCP) that set out the additional emission abatement measures needed to achieve their emission reduction commitments for 2020 and 2030. A review of NAPCPs carried out by the European Commission in 2019 indicated that many countries are not on track to meet their 2030 emission reduction commitments (see separate article).

The EEA points out that ensuring consistency between the NAPCPs and the National Energy and Climate Plans should result in an increased level of ambition in future revisions to NAPCPs, and that this requires a focus on delivering synergies in reducing both air pollutants and GHGs, especially across the energy, transport and agricultural sectors.

Christer Ågren

Source: EAA briefing on the NEC directive reporting status 2020 (30 June 2019).

Link: https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/air/air-pollution-sources-1/national-em...

Note: More detailed emissions data are published by the EEA in the report “European Union emission inventory report 1990–2018 under the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP)”, EEA Report No. 8/2020, which is available at: https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/european-union-emission-inventory...

' v' indicates that the emission ceiling has been met.
' x ' indicates that the emission ceiling has not been met.

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