EU air pollution policy

       Photo: Anton Vavilov/CC BY_NC-ND

Until the early nineties, EU policy regarding air pollution had tended to be fragmented. Such directives as existed were either those setting air-quality standards for a few selected air pollutants, or others to control emissions from certain defined sources, such as large power plants and road vehicles.

Some first steps towards a more clearly aimed and strategic policy could be seen in the fifth environmental action programme, which was presented in 1992. Also dating from 1992 was the auto-oil programme, which aimed to set new environmental requirements for road vehicles (cars, trucks and buses) and motor fuels.

During the second half of the 1990s the Commission also presented strategies for combating acidification and ground-level ozone within the EU. The two laid the foundation for the 2001 National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) directive.

The 1997 EU acidification strategy came to involve a revision and tightening of two important directives: the first for controlling the sulphur content of liquid fuels and the second for emissions from large combustion plants (LCP directive).

The more strategically oriented work on air quality that was initiated in the nineties was followed up by the Clean Air For Europe (CAFE) Programme and the 2005 Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution.

The Clean Air for Europe (CAFE) programme was launched by the European Commission in 2001, with the aim of reviewing the EU’s air quality policies and assessing progress towards attainment of the EU's long-term air quality objectives, as laid down in the Sixth Environment Action Programme.

The CAFE programme set highest priority to dealing with fine particles (PM) and ground-level ozone, both because of their serious effects on health and the fact that much would have to be done if concentrations were to be brought down to acceptable levels. Other outstanding air pollutant problems, such as acidification and eutrophication, were also given high attention.

The Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution

Through its stakeholder consultation process, CAFE involved member states, industry and environmental groups in the analysis for a Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution (TSAP), which was adopted by the Commission in September 2005.

By establishing interim environmental objectives for 2020 in the strategy, the Commission suggested a rather unimpressive level of ambition regarding air quality in the EU until that year. This was later of some importance for other EU air quality legislation, as well as for the EU position in the negotiations for the revision of the Gothenburg Protocol under the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP).

Originally it was the Commission’s intention that CAFE should evolve into an ongoing five-year cyclical programme, in which the 2005 TSAP simply marked the first milestone, but in 2007 the CAFE stakeholder consultation process was suddenly stopped, and it has not been re-started.

2013 – The Year of Air

In March 2011 the Commission released a policy paper on “the implementation of EU air quality policy and preparing for its comprehensive review.” Here, the Commission concluded that “prompt action is required to further reduce air emissions linked to the most problematic air pollutants such as particulate matter, ground-level ozone and nitrogen dioxide,” and declared that it intends to update the 2005 TSAP, review the 2008 air quality directive and revise the 2001 NEC directive. An up-to-date clean air strategy package was to be presented by the Commission in 2013, at the latest.

Work on the review and revision of EU air pollution policy, including analysis (consultancy reports), stakeholder consultation meetings, and internet consultations, was carried out during 2011-2013.

In view of all the ongoing infringement proceedings against member states failing to comply with the current standards for PM10 and NO2, the Commission decided to not include the 2008 air quality directive in this review process.

At the very end of the EU’s “Year of Air” the European Commission finally presented its long-awaited new clean air policy package. The new actions proposed were motivated by the fact that each year more than 400,000 people in the EU die prematurely from air pollution, and almost two-thirds of the EU ecosystem area is exposed to excess nitrogen emanating from air pollution. The damage to health has huge economic costs for society – for 2010 these were estimated to amount to between €330 and 940 billion, equalling 3–9 per cent of EU GDP.

There were four main components in Commission’s 2013 clean air policy package:

  • A Commission communication on a “Clean Air Programme for Europe”, a strategy document with measures aimed at meeting already existing targets in the short term (up to 2020), and new air quality objectives for the period up to 2030, also including supporting measures to improve air quality in cities, support to research and innovation, and the promoting of international cooperation;
  • A main legislative proposal to revise the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) directive, setting new country-by-country emission reduction requirements up to 2030 for six main air pollutants;
  • A proposal for a new directive to reduce pollution from medium-sized combustion plants (MCP), such as local heating plants for smaller districts and small industrial installations; and,
  • A proposal to transpose into EU law the international emission reductions for 2020 that the EU has committed to under the 2012 Gothenburg Protocol of the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP).

The new NEC directive 

During 2015, the proposed new NEC directive was discussed in the European Parliament and also negotiated by member states in the Council. In the first half of 2016, the Council, Parliament and Commission negotiated the contents of the NEC directive and a provisional first-reading agreement was reached on 30 June. The new NEC directive was then formally adopted in December, and it entered into force on 31 December 2016.

EU decision-making process

In the case of products that can travel across national borders, such as vehicles and vehicle fuels, the EU requirements are usually harmonization requirements, i.e. the same requirements must apply in all member countries. Stationary installations (e.g. combustion plants) and air quality standards are instead covered by minimum requirements, i.e. each member country is free to set stricter national requirements if it wishes.

Most EU decisions on environmental issues are reached by means of a co-decision procedure, which means that the European Parliament has an equal say in the matter as the Council of Ministers. As a result the decision-making process can be fairly long-winded - it often takes 1-2 years between a proposal from the Commission and the final legislation being adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

>> Further reading 

EU "Clean Air Outlook" up to 2030. Article in Acid News 3/2018.

Agricultural ammonia emissions keep on rising. Article in Acid News 3/2018.

New NEC Directive in force. Article in Acid News 1/2017.

New watered-down EU air pollution targets. Article in Acid News 3/2016.

Member states opt for weakening air pollution targets. Article in Acid News 1/2016.

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

EU air pollution emission limits still exceeded. Article in Acid News 3/2015.

Higher ambitions needed for NEC. Article in Acid News 2/2015.

Achieving NEC targets will cost less. Article in Acid News 1/2015.

PM pollution requires EU-wide action. Article in Acid News 4/2014.

Air quality targets much cheaper than expected. Article in Acid News 4/2014.

Emissions are falling - but not enough. Article in Acid News 3/2014.

Profitable to cut air pollution. Article in Acid News 2/2014.

A new EU clean air strategy up to 2030. Article in Acid News 1/2014.

Finding the ambition level. Article in Acid News 2/2013.

NGO priorities for the review of the Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution (March 2013) position paper supported by 60 NGOs and networks

Revising EU air pollution policy. Article in Acid News 1/2013.

Progress in EU air policy review. Article in Acid News 3/2012.

Overhaul of EU air quality policy announced. Article in Acid News 2/2011.

European Commission DG Environment on air pollution and air quality

The CAFE programme and the Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution (January 2006) Factsheet from AirClim, extended version (pdf, 270 kB).

NGO Position paper on the Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution (January 2006) (pdf, 55 kB)

The Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution (September 2005)

Political development. Chapter 9 in the book Air and the Environment, published by AirClim in 2004

EU legislation on air pollution and acidification. (June 2002) Factsheet from AirClim (pdf, 65kB)

Updated 2018-04-12