Air quality legislation

       Illustration: Lars-Erik Håkansson

During the years 2014-2016, between 74 and 85 per cent of the EU urban population is exposed to levels of harmful particulate matter (PM2.5) exceeding the air quality guideline set by the World Health Organisation, and more than 95 per cent is exposed to ozone exceeding the WHO guideline, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA). Air pollution by PM is estimated to cause nearly 400 000 premature deaths every year in the EU.

In 1996 the EU adopted the directive on ambient air quality assessment and management (96/62/EC). This framework directive was subsequently supplemented by four daughter directives that set limit values and/or target values for maximum allowed concentrations of air pollutants in ambient air. The four daughter directives were:

  • 1999/30/EC, covering sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particles and lead.
  • 2000/69/EC, which covers benzene and carbon monoxide.
  • 2002/3/EC, which deals with ground-level ozone.
  • 2004/107/EC, covering polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and a number of heavy metals (As, Cd, Ni, Hg).

When presenting the Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution in September 2005, the Commission also proposed a new air quality directive. By combining the 1996 framework directive with the subsequent daughter directives, air quality legislation would be streamlined and simplified. The new “combined” directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe (2008/50/EC) entered into force in June 2008.

This new directive did not change the previously set standards as such, but member states were given more time to meet already existing standards in certain areas. Moreover, the directive introduced a new limit value for fine particles (PM2.5) of 25 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) that entered into force in 2015. In contrast, the air quality guidelines agreed by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2005 recommend an annual average PM2.5 standard of 10 µg/m3.

The air quality directive says nothing about how the limit values should be achieved; that is up to each member country to decide. However, it does require that corrective measures should be taken if the standards are not met. The specified limit values are minimum standards, meaning that member states can introduce stricter standards if they wish.

Many member states have not taken the action needed to comply with the PM10 limit values. While full compliance originally should have been achieved in 2005, under the new directive extensions until June 2011 could be granted under certain circumstances. However, the Commission denied the majority of requests from member states for such time extensions, the major reasons being that countries have not demonstrated that they have taken all feasible measures and/or that they will actually achieve compliance within the extension period.

Similarly, many member states failed to achieve the NO2 limit values by the 2010 deadline. Also in this case the new directive could allow extensions – here up to 2015. And as for PM10, the Commission denied the majority of requests for such time extensions on the same grounds as for the PM10 requests.

A review and revision of the air quality directive was foreseen for 2013, but in view of all the ongoing infringement proceedings against member states that have failed to comply with the current standards for PM10 and NO2, the Commission has decided to postone such action.

In May 2018, the Commission initiated a fitness check of the two EU Ambient Air Quality (AAQ) directives (directives 2008/50/EC and 2004/107/EC), which is to be finalised by end 2019. The fitness check evaluates the relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, coherence and EU added value of the AAQ directives, and the findings will inform possible future action to revise the AAQ directives.

>> Further reading

Harmful air pollution levels still much too high. Article in Acid News 4/2018.

EU auditors urge tougher action on air quality. Article in Acid News 4/2018.

Six countries taken to court over air quality breaches. Article in Acid News 3/2018.

Courts require action to clear the air. Article in Acid News 1/2018.

Ruling against Bulgaria opens door for air pollution action. Article in Acid News 2/2017.

Stronger air quality measures needed. Article in Acid News 1/2017.

Air quality in Europe - 2016 report. EEA Report No 28/2016.

Europeans still exposed to harmful air pollution. Article in Acid News 1/2016.

140 000 life-years lost each year in London because of air pollution. Article in Acid News 3/2015.

Bad air quality prevails. Article in Acid News 1/2015.

447 000 premature deaths/year in EU due to bad air quality. Article in Acid News 4/2014.

UK brought to court on bad air quality. Article in Acid News 3/2014.

Harmful ozone levels over Europe. Article in Acid News 2/2014.

Air pollution levels still much too high. Article in Acid News 4/2013.

Is air quality in Europe getting any better? Article in Acid News 4/2012

Bringing justice through the air quality directiver. Article in Acid News 1/2012.

Serious air quality problems in Europe. Article in Acid News 4/2011.

For Clean Air Everywhere: What can be done to decrease air pollution? Pamphlet published jointly by AirClim, EEB and T&E. March 2011 (pdf, 870 kB).

Policy action improves air quality in Europe. Article in Acid News 1/2011.

Particles killing half a million. Article in Acid News 2/2010.

Directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe

Particles and health. Factsheet from AirClim, April 2006 (pdf, 200 kB)

European Commission DG Environment on air pollution and air quality

Air pollution and man. Chapter 3 in AirClim’s book Air and the Environment (2004)

Updated 2019-04-12