EU clean air strategy


This article is part of our special report Air Quality.

The strategy aims to extend clean air laws into new sectors – agriculture and transport – that were not covered before, targeting five main pollutants including fine-dust particles which are most harmful to human health. It is expected to cost the EU some €7.1 billion every year but the anticipated benefits in terms of reduced sickness and mortality will be fivefold, the Commission claims.

The 'Thematic Strategy on air pollution', is part of the Commission's  Clean Air for Europe (CAFE)  programme, put forward by the Commission in 2001. Its key objective is to bring all existing air quality legislation into a new single legal instrument, the  draft Ambient Air Quality Directive .

The clean air strategy is also linked to the Euro 5 / Euro 6 legislation aimed at limiting pollutant emissions from cars. The new standards were adopted in 2006 and will start applying gradually as of 2009 (see related LinksDossier).

The strategy was due for adoption in July 2005 but was postponed due to pressure from some Commissioners who argued that Europe's economic problems needed to be tackled before environmental concerns (EURACTIV 5/07/05). Following a July orientation debate, Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas was finally given a green light to present his air pollution and other environmental strategies before the end of 2005 (EURACTIV 22/07/05).

There are seven 'thematic strategies' due to be adopted under the Commission's 6th environmental action programme of 2002 (see related LinksDossier).

  • Costs and benefits of clean air legislation

The costs of the strategy are estimated at 7.1 billion euros per annum until 2020, a significant reduction from the 11.6 billion initially envisaged before the plan was postponed by the College of Commissioners.

"It is a compromise," Dimas admitted. "We had to further decrease our level of ambition," he said, adding that he "tried very hard to bring the benefits to the fore in the discussion" with fellow Commissioners.

According to estimates from the Commission's environment directorate, the strategy would help reduce the number of deaths caused by air pollution from ultra fine dust particles and ozone "from 370,000 a year in 2000 to 230,000 in 2020". The related health benefits - fewer premature deaths, less sickness, fewer hospital admissions, improved labour productivity etc. - would be "worth at least €42 billion per year", Dimas said. This is five times as much as the costs, the Commissioner underlined.

  • Pollution reduction targets

The strategy focuses on reducing emissions from five key pollutants as well as ground-level ozone by 2020

  • Particulate Matter (PM): These fine dust particles are either emitted directly, (e.g by cars, diesel especially) or formed by a chemical reaction of other 'primary' pollutants (SO2, NOx, NH3).

    • PM 2.5  (dust particulates with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometer) are drawing most attention as they are "the big killer," according to the Commission. They are to be reduced by 75% under the strategy. 
    • PM 10 (diameter of less than 10 micrometer) are also targeted with a proposed limit value of 40 millionths of gramme per cubic metre (40µg/m3) to be met in all agglomerations before 2015.
  • Ammonia (NH3): emitted mainly from animal wastes and fertilisers. 
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx): causes acid rains, eutrophication (algae excess in lakes and ponds) and ground-level ozone. 
  • Sulphur dioxide (SO2): mainly formed by the combustion of coal and oil and creates acid deposits. 
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): emitted by paints, varnishes, solvents, transport fuels and a key component in the formation of ground-level ozone.
  • Ground level ozone: formed by nitrogen oxide (NOx) and volatile organic components (VOCs) which can be lethal to human health and cause heavy pollution in forests and agriculture. For ozone, concentrations would need to be reduced by 60%.

In order to tackle these pollutants, the strategy proposes broadening out clean air laws to more sectors or deepening legislative outreach into sectors already covered.

  • Agriculture: this is where the strategy brings in new elements with proposals to reduce ammonia emissions from fertilisers and manure due to be submitted by the Commission at an undisclosed time. "We are now at a point where you cannot envisage improvements in air quality without improvement from agriculture," a Commission official explained. 
  • Transport: More is to be done on shipping emissions in particular (nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide) but also on aviation and road vehicles (so-called Euro 5 standards). One of the main aspects of Euro5 will be to introduce emission ceilings on very fine dust particles (particulate matter or PM 2.5) from diesel engines, the Commission said.
  • Industry: Including small combustion plants in air pollution cutting schemes is the main novelty here. But there are also plans to harmonise standards for domestic combustion appliances as well as for reducing emissions of volatile organic components (VOCs) at fuel stations. 

In addition to keeping up with tougher US standards on PM, the Commission hopes to set standards that other countries in the world will follow, eventually giving EU businesses a competitive advantage by enticing them to adopt cleaner technology.

In a first reading in September 2006, the European Parliament voted to give more flexibility for member states to comply with proposed limit values. In particular, MEPs insisted that air pollution is by nature a moving phenomenon which if more effectively tackled at the source (EURACTIV 26/09/06).

Speaking for the EPP-ED group - the largest in the Parliament -, French MEP Françoise Grossetête said: "Pollution moves and reaches territories that are not themselves sources of pollution. Contrary to what is written in the report, the high level of air pollution is not always in urban zones with high population density."

"The largest percentage of pollutants is emitted from sources that have not been regulated so far, such as small combustion plants, agriculture or ships. It is time the Commission realises this and presents proposals," added Holger Krahmer MEP (Germany, ALDE), the rapporteur on the directive.

Reaching a political agreement in October 2006, the Council tightened limit values for PM 2.5, making them legally binding instead of just indicative. However, the Council also allowed member states more time on PM10, leaving three more years to reach the proposed limit values. In line with the Parliament's position, the revised proposal also leaves more flexibility for member states to adapt to local situations (hot weather, 'imported' pollution) which can worsen air quality. (See also statements by Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands and Poland).

In a position paper on Euro5, the European car makers association ACEA said clean air measures proposed by the Commission's environment DG under the CAFE programme were based on incorrect cost estimates and should be revised. In particular, it confirms that setting a PM limit level of 5 mg/km will "force the fitment of diesel particle filters" which currently come at a high price for consumers. Generally speaking, ACEA says the clean air strategy does not fit with the need to improve the competitiveness of the EU car industry as presently discussed under the CARS 21 initiative.

Christian Pallière of the European Fertilizer Manufacturers Association (EFMA) said efforts to reduce pollution from ammonia is something EFMA have been working on with the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) for several years. "For us, what's new is that agriculture will now come under the EU CAFE (Clean Air for Europe) programme." But he says, "it is more an evolution than a revolution." "Fertilisers in themselves are not pollutants, Pallière points out. "It is their excessive use and bad handling which can be." 

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) criticised the strategy for being "far too weak" and not going far enough in improving air quality. The EEB is especially critical that no legal obligation is set for reducing concentrations of fine particles (PM 2.5) and that only an indicative target is being set.

"A legally binding requirement to make real reductions on particle emissions would have been the only right answer. Instead, the Commission decided to postpone such target setting for many years and make the directive into a toothless tiger," says Kerstin Meyer, air pollution policy officer at the EEB.

The European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E) is also disappointed with the Commission's approach. T&E Director Jos Dings said: "In the field of transport, it is not a strategy - it is a collection of restatements of existing policies and some weak promises." What Dings finds more worrying is that policy measures linked to the strategy, such as the Euro5 standards for passenger cars, "also look terribly weak" and are the result of the Commission listening to "lowest-common-denominator industry groups".

  • Sept. 2006: Parliament votes to loosen proposed new Air Quality Directive in order to allow more flexibility for member states to reach the proposed limit values (EURACTIV 26/09/06)
  • Oct. 2006: Council votes to tighten pollution limits in the draft Directive, sending it on a collision course with Parliament. However, it also accepts more flexibility on how to reach the more stringent limit values (EURACTIV 26/10/06)
  • 25 June 2007: Council formalises agreement in a common position (see press release and statement of reasons)
  • 11 December 2007: Parliament and Council agree on package of compromise amendments in second reading vote (EURACTIV 12/12/07)
  • 14 April 2008: Council adopts Air Quality Directive (EURACTIV 15/04/08)
  • 11 June 2008: Directive published in the Official Journal of the European Union
  • 11 June 2010: Date by which Member States have to comply with the Directive

Subscribe to our newsletters