Czechia has been in breach of its ammonia celing for ten consecutive years. Photo: © Jan Toula /

Emission limits still breached

While most EU member states met their binding national emission limits in 2019, significant further action is needed to achieve the reduction commitments set for the period 2020–29 and for 2030 onwards.

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 harmful air pollutants: nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH3), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs).

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.

Official emissions data for 2010–2019 reported to the European Environment Agency (EEA) shows that over these years there were numerous breaches of the emissions limits by several member states. Despite this, the European Commission has so far brought no country to court for their illegal emissions.

Specifically for 2019, four countries – Croatia, Czechia, Ireland and Spain – were still in breach of their limits for NH3. Of these, Spain and Czechia have now been in breach of their NH3 ceilings for ten consecutive years.

Emissions from agriculture – mainly from the use of fertilisers and the handling of animal manure – are responsible for the 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.

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 currently deemed to exceed one or more emission ceilings could decrease.

The lack of ambition of the 2016 NEC directive, especially regarding the 2020 reduction commitments, has been strongly criticised by environmental organisations. The new EEA analysis now shows that in 2019, the aggregated EU-27 emissions for all five pollutants were already below their respective targets for 2020.

Looking at individual countries, the 2019 emission levels suggest that nine countries have already attained the emission reduction commitments for the 2020–2029 period for all five pollutants. But more effort will clearly 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 resulted in temporarily lower emissions of several pollutants and may therefore help countries to meet their 2020 commitments. But without additional efforts, these Covid-19 related reductions will most likely be reversed as the economy recovers.

Moving on to the targets for 2030, more action is clearly needed for all pollutants if the EU is to achieve its 2030 emission reduction commitments. The EEA concludes that to achieve the 2030 limits, all member states need to lower their 2019 emissions by more than ten per cent for at least one pollutant. In summary:

  • All countries except Estonia need to reduce NOx emissions, and ten of these must cut emissions by more than 30 per cent.
  • Most countries need additional action to cut PM2.5 emissions – Czechia, Hungary and Romania must more than halve their emissions, while an additional seven countries will need to cut PM2.5 emissions by more than 30 per cent.
  • Reducing NH3 emissions will continue to be a major challenge for almost all member states, and nine countries will need to lower emissions by more than ten per cent.
  • Significant action will be needed in 15 member states to reduce emissions of NMVOCs. Czechia, Hungary and Lithuania need to cut emission levels by more than 30 per cent.

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 the 2019 NAPCPs carried out by the European Commission indicated that many countries are not on track to meet their 2030 emission reduction commitments (see AN 3/2020, pp 24–25), and a more recent analysis by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) concluded that virtually all (26 out of 27) member states have failed to show how they will cut air pollution to comply with the 2030 limits (see AN 1/2021, pp 12–13).

The EEA points out that changes in the energy sector are crucial to meet the emission reduction commitments for PM2.5, especially cutting the use of biomass and coal in residential heating. Reducing NH3 and NOx emissions will require action in the agricultural and road transport sectors, respectively.

Moreover, ensuring consistency between the NAPCPs and the National Energy and Climate Plans can increase the reduction in emissions of both air pollutants and greenhouse gases across the energy, industrial, transport and agricultural sectors.

Christer Ågren

Source: EAA briefing on “The National Emission Ceilings Directive Reporting Status 2021” (26 August 2020).
Note: More detailed emissions data are published by the EEA in the report “European Union emission inventory report 1990–2019 under the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (Air Convention)”, EEA Report No. 5/2021, which is available at:

Link to table 1



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