EU countries falling short of air pollution targets

By: Christer Ågren

A new study by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) has analysed progress by member states towards compliance with the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive, which aims to halve the impact of air pollution on people’s health by 2030.

When the NEC Directive was adopted in 2016, EU member state governments promised to reduce their emissions of five major air pollutants in two steps, by 2020 and 2030, and to put in place National Air Pollution Control Programmes (NAPCPs) outlining how those objectives will be achieved.

The reporting deadline for the first NAPCPs was 1 April 2019, but 20 countries failed to submit their national air pollution control programmes by this date and, over a year and half later, Greece, Luxembourg and Romania have still not delivered their programmes and Italy has only submitted a draft.

On top of the delays, the report highlights shortcomings and failures regarding the completeness of national reporting, the credibility of the national programmes, and public participation.

Moreover, the analysis show that only two EU countries (Belgium and Slovakia) appear to be on track to comply with their first-step emission reduction commitments (ERCs) for 2020–29, and only one (Belgium) with the second step ERCs for 2030. The remaining countries are judged to be either at a medium or high risk of non-compliance for all pollutants, with more than half of the member states at high risk of non-compliance for 2030 onwards.

“With our health and environment at stake, it is a scandal that all but two member states have fallen so short of their commitments to reduce air pollution over this critical decade,” said the EEB’s Senior Policy Officer for Air and Noise, Margherita Tolotto. “We call on the European Commission to start infringement procedures against all the member states which have failed to submit a credible programme, and to ensure that all plans are fit for purpose.”

In November, the European Environment Agency (EEA) confirmed air pollution remains the biggest environmental health risk in Europe, causing around 400,000 premature deaths per year in the EU (see AN 4/20, pp. 18–19). Although some effective measures have been rolled out in the road transport and energy sectors, emission reductions are way too slow, especially when it comes to agriculture and domestic heating.

Agriculture stands out in particular as the sector governments were afraid to tackle, where reduction targets for ammonia emissions are most likely to be missed. This is especially worrying as emissions from farming have increased in recent years.

For the EEB’s Secretary General, Jeremy Wates, “this points to a big problem with the governance around agriculture at the EU level.”

“Agriculture is not only a significant source of air pollution, but also the single biggest driver of biodiversity loss in Europe, and it accounts for 10–15 per cent of the EU’s contribution to climate change. Yet the sector is not effectively addressed, and the way the CAP negotiations are going is looking pretty bad,” Wates warned.

Domestic heating is also a key sector to address if governments are to respect the reduction targets for fine particles (PM2.5), which is one of the most hazardous air pollutants.

The EEB report explores what went wrong and provides tools and recommendations to rectify the dire situation, including the steps to be taken and measures to be included by member states when preparing appropriate NAPCPs.

“We ask national governments to tackle air pollution with the urgency it deserves, by putting in place the necessary national programmes and sticking to them. As many of them prepare their National Recovery and Resilience Plans, air quality must be a priority,” said Tolotto.

The European Commission is requested to enforce a quick resubmission of NAPCPs for those member states that were found to have a high risk of non-compliance in the Commission’s assessment, and to propose additional EU-wide actions that could help improve the situation, in particular to reduce agricultural ammonia emissions.


Christer Ågren


Sources: EEB press release and META article, 18 December 2020.

The report “National Air Pollution Control Programmes: analysis and suggestions for the way forward” is available at:

In this issue