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European Commission - Fact Sheet

EU approves new rules for Member States to drastically cut air pollution

Brussels, 14 December 2016

Questions and Answers

Who will benefit from the new National Emissions Ceiling Directive, and how?

All EU citizens will benefit from improved air quality, but children, the elderly and citizens suffering from asthma and respiratory conditions will benefit the most. Industry can also benefit because measures to reduce air pollution will boost innovation and enhance European competitiveness in the field of green technology. Air pollution is a worldwide problem, and the demand for low-emitting clean-tech products and production methods is expected to increase rapidly. Public authorities at all levels will benefit too, as the new policy will help them reach existing air pollution standards. It will save the economy billions from less working days lost and lower health care costs.

Why is air pollution a problem?

Poor air quality is a major health risk, causing lung diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. As well as negative effects on health, air pollution has considerable economic impacts increasing medical costs, and reducing productivity through lost working days. Air pollution also has impacts on the environment, affecting the quality of fresh water, soil, and ecosystems.

In 2013, more than 450 000 people are estimated to have died prematurely from air pollution in the EU[1]. Almost two-thirds of the EU land area was exposed to excess nutrient above safe levels. Air pollution can also damage materials and buildings. Some air pollutants behave like greenhouse gases that cause climate change. The economic cost of the health impacts alone is huge, estimated at EUR 330-940 billion (3-9% of EU GDP).

What are the main air pollutants regulated by the NEC directive – and where do they come from?

Air pollution is caused mainly by industry, transport, energy and agriculture, as well as some domestic household activities like heating. The major air pollutants are:

  • Primary particulate matter (PM) is fine dust, emitted by road vehicles, shipping, power generation and households from burning fossil fuels or biomass. It also comes from natural sources such as sea salt, wind-blown soil and sand. Health concerns focus on particles of less than 10 micrometres (μm) in diameter (PM10) – especially those of less than 2.5 μm in diameter (PM2.5). It can cause respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer. Black carbon is the sooty part of the particulates emitted from combustion.
  • Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is emitted by power generation, industry, shipping and households. It harms human health through the formation of secondary PM and contributes to acidification of soils and inland waters.
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are emitted by road vehicles, shipping, power generation, industry and households. Like SO2, they harm human health by forming secondary PM and contribute to acid rain, but it also causes eutrophication. It is a key component in increased levels of ground-level ozone (O3).
  • Ammonia (NH3) is emitted by activities linked to manure and fertilisers management in agriculture and the use of fertilisers in agriculture. It harms human health as a building block for secondary PM, and contributes to acidification and eutrophication.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are emitted from solvents in products and industry, road vehicles, household heating and power generation. VOCs are a key component in the formation of ground-level ozone.

What are the next steps?

The Directive will enter into force on 31 December 2016. Member States must transpose it into national legislation by 30 June 2018. The main implementing measure is the National Air Pollution Control Programme, which the Member States must produce by 31 March 2019. The Commission will provide guidance on the plans by spring 2017 and work closely with Member States on the implementation, including by facilitating access to existing EU funding instruments.

One important technical initiative in 2017 will be a comprehensive review of the emission inventories of all Member States on which the implementation of the Directive relies, to ensure robust accounting of the actual pollutant emissions in Europe.

What progress has EU air policy made so far?

EU and international policies have reduced some air pollution problems in recent decades. Sulphur dioxide emissions (the cause of acid rain) have been cut by more than 80% in the past two decades, and nitrogen oxides and VOCs by 40-50%. Despite this, the EU and its Member States need to do more to achieve levels of air quality that do not have significant negative impacts on human health and the environment, an objective agreed in the 7th Environmental Action Programme. The new NEC Directive is a major step forward towards this.

How does the Directive affect the agriculture sector?

The total ammonia reduction requirement is less than what the Commission had originally proposed. Nevertheless, ammonia is a particularly important cause of air pollution, even in cities, and the agriculture sector will have to make significant efforts to achieve the agreed ammonia reduction commitments. The Directive contains measures which will provide Member States with a useful default set of options to reduce ammonia emissions. These often involve low-tech investments and changes in farming practices. The Commission will work on supporting the implementation efforts, including by maximising use of Common Agricultural Policy funding.

How does the Directive address short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs)?

The original COM proposal ensured coherence with climate and energy policy in part by addressing two of the main air pollutants which are particularly relevant from a climate policy perspective – methane and black carbon.

For black carbon, the Directive requires Member States to prioritise reductions of black carbon when taking measures on PM2,5. The key sectors for PM are also the principal emitters of black carbon – road and non-road transport, solid fuel domestic combustion, and open burning of agricultural waste. Thus the measures taken on these should indeed ensure robust black carbon abatement.

The Commission regrets that methane has been deleted from the scope. There is a strong air quality case for keeping the development of methane emissions in the Member States under review in order to reduce ozone concentrations in the EU (Ozone is also a short lived climate pollutant) and to promote methane reductions internationally. On the basis of the reported national emissions, the Commission intends to further assess the impact of methane emissions on achieving air policy objectives. It will consider measures for reducing those emissions, and where appropriate, submit a legislative proposal to that purpose. In its assessment, the Commission will take into account a number of ongoing studies in this field, due to be finalised in 2017, as well as further international developments in this area.

How else is coherence with other policies ensured?

The National Air Pollution Control Programmes, which Member States must develop to ensure that the reductions are achieved, must ensure coherence with air quality policy, but also with plans and programmes in other areas, including climate and energy, transport and agriculture. The new proposal for an Energy Union Governance Regulation also refers to the need for coordination between the National Integrated Energy and Climate Plans (NIECP) and the new NEC Directive. The deadline for publication of the two plans is aligned (2019).

Will the new Directive solve the ongoing compliance problems with existing air quality standards?

The Directive will bring down transboundary emissions and therefore background concentrations across Europe. It is an important step towards reducing air pollution and improving air quality in the long term. However, in many cases national and local air quality problems require additional national and local efforts, which the Commission is keen to facilitate. It is for the Member States to determine the appropriate further measures.

What is the difference between EU air pollution emission ceilings and EU air quality standards?

  • EU national emission ceilings are upper limits for total emissions of certain air pollutants that Member States have to respect by a certain date, to push down background concentrations and limit transboundary air pollution. Existing ceilings are in place for 2010, as set out in the Gothenburg Protocol in 1999 and the EU old NEC Directive (2001/81/EC). New ceilings (which are called national emission reduction commitments) for 2020 were agreed in the revised Gothenburg Protocol, and are implemented for 2020 and 2030 in the new NEC Directive.
  • EU air quality standards are local concentration limit values for the air pollutants most harmful to health. They are set out in the EU ambient air quality Directive (2008/50/EC), which have to be respected everywhere in the EU with a view to provide a general protection for all against harmful air pollution levels. Achieving the air quality standards often requires a combination of local measures addressing particular air pollution hotspots, and reducing background emissions by implementing the NEC Directive.

What else is being done at international and EU level to tackle air pollution?

Air pollution crosses national borders so it is a matter of international concern. International cooperation takes place under the 1979 UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP), which has a number of legally binding protocols. The Gothenburg Protocol to Abate Acidification, Eutrophication and Ground-level Ozone, for example, was adopted in 1999. It aims at limiting air emissions of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, VOCs, ammonia from Europe and North America. It sets national emission ceilings for the main air pollutants which may not be exceeded by 2010. The Protocol was revised in 2012, with new ceilings agreed for 2020 and more stringent emission limit requirements for the major emitting source categories.

At EU level, the main components of the air quality policy framework are:

  • The 2013 Clean Air Programme for Europe, which updates the 2005 EU Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution to set new strategic policy objectives for 2020 and 2030;
  • The new National Emission Ceilings Directive (NEC Directive), which is the main legislative implementation of the new objectives, setting caps on national pollution of the main air pollutants;
  • The Ambient Air Quality Directives, setting local air quality limits which may not be exceeded anywhere in the EU – they were not revised in the 2013 review.
  • Source-specific legislation designed to limit emissions from specific economic sectors, such as the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), the new Medium Combustion Plants Directive, the Euro standards for vehicles, energy efficiency standards, fuel standards for ships, etc.

For More Information

The Commission review website


[1] EEA Air Quality in Europe report 2016:


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