Air quality: MEPs back new national caps on pollutants

Plans for more ambitious national caps on emissions of key pollutants by 2030, including NOx, particulates and sulphur dioxide, won the support of MEPs on Wednesday. Air pollution causes about 400,000 premature deaths in the EU per year.

“Air pollution is the number one environmental cause of death in the EU”, said lead MEP Julie Girling (ECR, UK). “The political backdrop has changed dramatically over the course of the last three years, with the issue of air quality coming up the public agenda to an unprecedented level, in combination with the VW scandal and the issue of real driving emissions. Perhaps there is also the recognition that we have spent the last decade concentrating so much on CO2, that we neglected air quality”, she added.

The new legislation sets out national emission reduction commitments for sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC), ammonia (NH3), and fine particulates (less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter). The proposed pollution cuts would reduce health impacts of air pollution by around 50% by 2030.


According to the European Environment Agency, these pollutants come from various sources:

  • particulate matter (PM) is emitted mainly by heating, industry and transport,
  • NOx is emitted mainly by the transport sector,
  • SOx emissions come mostly from energy production and non-road transport,
  • almost all NH3 emissions come from agriculture,
  • CO emissions come from heating and transport, and
  • most methane (CH4) emissions come from the agriculture, waste and energy sectors.

Car emissions

As advocated by MEPs, the text reiterates the EU commitment to identifying and responding to source control legislation that is failing to work, as demonstrated by the discrepancy between real-world emissions and NOx test emissions from EURO 6 diesel cars.


Member states insisted on excluding methane from the scope of the directive. However, the EU Commission confirmed that it could trigger a review on this point. The resolution was approved by 499 votes to 177, with 28 abstentions.


In 2010 air pollution caused over 400,000 premature deaths in the EU and exposed over 62% of EU territory to eutrophication, including 71% of Natura 2000 ecosystems. Its total external costs are in the range of € 330-940 bn per year, including direct economic damage of € 15 bn from lost workdays, € 4 bn in healthcare costs, € 3 bn in crop yield loss and €1bn in damage to buildings (European Commission figures).

Non-compliance with existing air quality standards and the EU’s new international obligations under the Gothenburg Protocol prevent better protection of EU citizens and their environment. Areas not in compliance with PM10 and NO2 standards amount to 32% and 24% of EU territory respectively, and 40 m citizens are still exposed to PM10 levels above EU limit values.

Source: European Parliament