EU Clean Air Outlook

By: Christer Ågren

The number of premature deaths due to air pollution will be reduced by more than half in 2030 compared to 2005, provided that EU countries implement all air pollution and climate measures in existing EU legislation, according to a new analysis published by the European Commission. The report also stresses that more could be done, as there are still plenty of measures for reducing air pollution that would bring more benefits than costs to society.

Published on 8 January 2021, the Second EU Clean Air Outlook report looks at the prospects for EU air quality up to 2050. It follows on from the 2013 Clean Air Programme proposal for a regular update of the air quality situation in the EU, and builds on an analysis prepared by the Commission’s consultant IIASA. The First Clean Air Outlook was published in June 2018.

The NEC directive requires each member country to cut emissions of five major air pollutants in two steps, by 2020 and by 2030. The pollutants covered are sulphur dioxide (SO₂), nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (VOC), ammonia (NH₃) and particulate matter (PM2.5).

The study analyses the effect of new measures to reduce air pollutant emissions from different sources put in place since the First Clean Air Outlook, including measures reported in the member states’ National Air Pollution Control Programmes (NAPCP) and changes resulting from the 2018 updated EU energy and climate policy. Improvements made over the last few years in the national emission inventories are also accounted for. However, the most recent proposal by the Commission, to increase the EU’s climate ambition by reducing greenhouse gases by 55% by 2030, is not part of the baseline scenarios in the analysis, but is reflected as a separate policy scenario.

Emission scenarios

Based on the above-mentioned information, two new baseline emission scenarios were produced, one business-as-usual, called “CAO2”, and one that includes the additional measures and policies envisaged in the reported NAPCPs, called “NAPCP” (see AN 3/20, pp. 24–25). The resulting emissions in 2030 under these baseline scenarios show whether countries are on track to meet the 2030 emission reduction requirements (ERR) of the NEC directive or not. Changes in total EU-27 emissions for the various scenarios are shown in Table 1 (country-by-country figures can be found in the report).

It was shown that for both scenarios only a handful of countries will have to take additional measures to meet their emission ceilings for SO₂, NOx, VOCs and PM2.5. For NH₃, on the other hand, the analysis showed that additional measures would be needed for most member states to meet their emission ceilings.

The scope of air pollutant emission reductions that could be achieved through full application of available technical emission control measures is illustrated in alternative scenarios, called “MTFR”. These scenarios should however be seen as conservative, as they exclude premature scrapping of existing capital stock and assume no further technological progress up to 2050.

To explore the impacts of additional climate policy scenarios, two decarbonisation scenarios, called “1.5 TECH” and “1.5 LIFE” were analysed. Both scenarios are designed to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

  2005 2030 2030 scenarios
SO2 6803 -78% -85% -85% -90%
NOx 9673 -61% -70% -70% -73%
VOC 7565 -41% -48% -49% -64%
PM2.5 1665 -50% -60% -61% -74%
NH3 3790 -19% -8% -19% -37%

Table 1. Total EU-27 emissions in 2005 (kilotons); National emission reduction commitments for 2030; Changes in emissions by 2030 under three scenarios.


After full implementation of the emission reduction requirements of the NEC directive, the share of the EU population exposed to PM2.5 concentrations above the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline of 10 µg/m³ is expected to drop significantly, to around 12 per cent in 2030. Cases of premature deaths due to excessive levels of PM2.5 and ozone would come down by 56 per cent, from 409,000 in 2005 to 180,000 in 2030.

In the MTFR scenario, the share of the EU population exposed to PM2.5 concentrations above the WHO’s guideline would be reduced to 4 per cent, and cases of premature deaths due to PM2.5 and ozone would come down to 148,000 in 2030.

But smaller improvements are expected for ecosystems, especially for impacts on biodiversity resulting from an oversupply of airborne nitrogen compounds. In 2005 around 76 per cent (470,000 km2) of the EU’s protected ecosystem area was exposed to excess nitrogen deposition. By 2030, this figure is expected to come down only by approximately one quarter, to 359,000 km2, equivalent to 58 per cent of Natura2000 nature protection areas. The main reason for this limited improvement is the NEC directive’s significantly lower ambition level for reducing ammonia emissions from agriculture.


Implementing the policies and measures announced by member states in their NAPCPs is estimated to cost about €1.4 billion per year in 2030, and the annual costs for implementing all the available technical measures (MTFR) is estimated at about €25.6 billion in 2030.

Median VOLY    
Benefits 12,678 67,296
Costs 1,349 25,629
Net benefits 11,329 41,667
Benefit-to-cost ratio 9.4 2.6
Mean VSL    
Benefits 43,570 230,332
Costs 1,349 25,629
Net benefits 42,227 204,703
Benefit-to-cost ratio 32.3 9.0

Table 2. Comparison of incremental annual costs and benefits for the EU-27 in 2030 of two of the scenarios analysed (million euro). 

Note: Specifically for mortality impacts, a lower and a higher value were used, the former being based on the value of a life year lost (VOLY) and the latter on the value of a statistical life (VSL).narios analysed (million euro).

Monetised benefits

Total annual health costs of air pollution in 2005 have been estimated to amount to €713–2005 billion in the EU. By 2030, full implementation of current legislation is expected to reduce these costs by more than 50 per cent.

The incremental annual health benefits resulting from additional measures of the NAPCPs amount to €11.8–42.7 billion, while those of implementing all the available technical measures (MTFR) amount to €63–226 billion.

For various reasons some of the health benefits from less air pollution exposure were not included in this valuation. This applies, for example, to reduced damage to health from nitrogen dioxide (NO₂ exposure and impacts identified on dementia, obesity and diabetes.

Air pollution damage to crops, forests, ecosystems and materials was estimated to amount to €44–53 billion in the EU in 2005, and the incremental annual monetised benefits of implementing the NAPCPs and the MTFR in 2030 were estimated at €0.3–0.9 billion and €2.3–4.2 billion, respectively. Figures in Table 3 include benefits to health and to crops, forests, ecosystems and materials.

It should be noted that the benefit analysis was limited geographically to the EU’s 27 member countries, which means that no allowance was made for the positive effects of reducing emissions in the EU on health and the environment in non-EU countries.

Links to climate policy

By avoiding the need to undertake some air pollution abatement measures, climate mitigation actions taken under the scenarios “1.5 TECH” and “1.5 LIFE” result in cost savings for air pollution control.

Of the climate scenarios, the one that reflects a move towards a circular economy and lifestyle change contributes most to reducing air pollutant emissions. The best measures are those that boost energy efficiency, increase the share of non-combustible renewables, improve the energy performance of buildings and promote more sustainable heating and cooling solutions, as well as measures in support of clean transport. But measures that increase the combustion of bioenergy, especially in devices without adequate emissions abatement technologies, are said to be detrimental to clean air and need to be avoided.

Methane, black carbon and ozone are of concern both for air quality and climate change, and the Commission “underlines the need to continue working on reducing emissions of air pollutant precursors, particularly methane.” It also said that the review of the NEC Directive (due by 2025) will explore the possible inclusion of methane among its regulated pollutants.

Next steps

The Commission concludes that ammonia emissions from agriculture remain an outstanding issue, and that “the additional measures announced by member states in their NAPCPs need to be implemented without delay to reduce these emissions, and even more measures need to be introduced in many member states.”

EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius said that it is “paramount that all member states fully implement the agreed and planned measures and step up efforts to tackle emissions. Further reducing air pollution would save more lives, reduce pressure on ecosystems and it makes economic sense.”


Christer Ågren



The Second Clean Air Outlook. Report from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. COM(2021)3 (8 January 2021).

Support to the development of the Second Clean Air Outlook. Main report + annex. IIASA. (December 2020).

The reports are available at:

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