Air legislation in Europe


Air pollution is not the same everywhere. Different pollutants are released into the atmosphere from a wide range of sources. Once in the atmosphere, they can transform into new pollutants and spread around the world. Designing and implementing policies to address this complexity are not easy tasks. Below is an overview of air legislation in the European Union.

The amount of pollutants emitted into the air we breathe has been greatly reduced since the EU introduced policies and measures concerning air quality in the 1970s. Air pollution emissions from many of the major sources including transport, industry, and power generation are now regulated and are generally declining, albeit not always to the extent envisaged.

Targeting pollutants

One way that the EU has achieved this improvement is by setting legally binding and non-binding limits for the whole Union for certain pollutants dispersed in the air. The EU has set standards for particulate matter (PM) of certain sizes, ozone, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, lead, and other pollutants that may have a detrimental effect on human health or ecosystems. Key pieces of legislation that set pollutant limits across Europe include the 2008 Directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe (2008/50/EC), and the 1996 Framework Directive on ambient air quality assessment and management (96/62/EC).

Another approach to legislating for improvements to air quality is through the setting of national annual emission limits for specific pollutants. In these cases, countries are responsible for introducing the measures needed to ensure that their emission levels are below the ceiling set for the relevant pollutant.

The Gothenburg Protocol to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP), and the EU National Emission Ceilings Directive (2001/81/EC) both set annual emissions limits for European countries on air pollutants, including those pollutants responsible for acidification, eutrophication, and ground-level ozone pollution. The Gothenburg Protocol was revised in 2012. And the National Emissions Ceilings Directive is up for review and revision in 2013.

Targeting sectors

In addition to setting air quality standards for specific pollutants and annual country-level ceilings, European legislation is also designed to target particular sectors that act as sources of air pollution.

Emissions of air pollutants from the industrial sector are regulated, by among others, the 2010 Industrial Emissions Directive (2010/75/EU) and the 2001 Directive on the limitation of emissions of certain pollutants into the air from Large Combustion Plants (2001/80/EC).

Vehicle emissions have been regulated through a series of performance and fuel standards, including the 1998 Directive relating to the quality of petrol and diesel fuels (98/70/EC) and vehicle emission standards, known as the Euro standards.

The Euro 5 and 6 standards cover emissions from light vehicles including passenger cars, vans, and commercial vehicles. The Euro 5 standard came into force on 1 January 2011, and requires all new cars covered by the legislation to emit less particulates and nitrogen oxides than the limits set. Euro 6, which will enter into force in 2015, will impose stricter limits on nitrogen oxides emitted by diesel engines.

There are also international agreements concerning the emissions of air pollutants in other areas of transportation, such as the International Maritime Organization’s 1973 Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), with its additional protocols, which regulate sulphur dioxide emissions from shipping.

(c) Javier Arcenillas, ImaginAIR/EEA

“Although fortunately there are still places in Romania almost wild and spectacular, where nature is unstained by the hand of man, in more urbanized areas there is an obvious ecological problem.”
Javier Arcenillas, Spain

Putting the pieces together

A pollutant is usually regulated by more than one piece of legislation. Particulate matter, for example, is directly addressed by three European legal measures (Directives on ambient air quality and emissions of air pollutants, and the Euro limits on road vehicle emissions) and two international conventions (LRTAP and MARPOL). Some of the PM precursors are tackled by other legal measures.

The implementation of these laws are also spread over a period of time and achieved in stages. For fine particles, the air quality directive sets 25 μg/m3 as a ‘target value’ to be met by 1 January 2010. The same threshold is set to become a ‘limit value’ by 2015, entailing additional obligations.

For some sectors, air policies might first cover certain pollutants in limited parts of Europe. In September 2012, the European Parliament adopted the revisions that brought the EU’s standards on sulphur emissions by ships in line with the International Maritime Organization’s standards from 2008. By 2020, the sulphur limit will be 0.5 % in all the seas around the EU.

For the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel in so-called ‘Sulphur Emission Control Areas’, the European Parliament set an even stricter sulphur limit of 0.1 % by 2015. Considering that standard marine fuel contains 2 700 times more sulphur than conventional diesel for cars, it is clear that this legislation gives strong reasons to the shipping sector to develop and use cleaner fuels.

Implementation on the ground

Current European air-quality legislation is based on the principle that EU Member States divide their territories into a number of management zones in which countries are required to assess air quality using measurement or modelling approaches. Most big cities are declared to be such zones. If air‑quality standards are exceeded in a zone, the Member State has to report to the European Commission and explain the reasons.

The countries are then required to develop local or regional plans describing how they intend to improve the air quality. They could for example establish so-called low-emission zones that restrict access for more polluting vehicles. Cities can also encourage a shift in transport to less polluting modes including walking, cycling, and public transport. They can also ensure that industrial and commercial combustion sources are fitted with emission‑control equipment, according to the latest, best-available technology.

Research is also critical. Not only does research offer us new technologies, it also improves our knowledge of air pollutants and their negative effects on our health and ecosystems. Integrating the latest knowledge into our laws and actions will help us to continue to improve Europe’s air.

(c) Gülçin Karadeniz

More information



Environment: “The fish cannot go to court”: Give your opinion on how to improve access to environmental justice


The European Commission has launched a public consultation on ways to improve access to justice in the field of the environment. Access to justice – the right to challenge decisions or omissions by public bodies that are suspected of not complying with environmental law – is an international obligation under a UN Convention ratified by the EU in 2005.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: “It is very important that citizens and NGOs are able to play an active role in defending the environment. In the words of Advocate General Eleanor Sharpston: ‘the fish cannot go to court'”

Although EU legislation covers many areas related to access to justice, there are gaps which are only filled by case law. Stakeholders are concerned by the legal uncertainty that they currently face and both the Council and Parliament have called for action to improve access to environmental justice. This consultation asks for views on what action at EU level might be needed to complement or clarify existing legislation, to ensure fair and effective access to national courts in environmental matters.

The consultation covers three broad areas:

  • Perceptions of the importance of ensuring effective and efficient access to environmental justice in Member States
  • Options for ensuring effective and efficient access to justice in environmental matters
  • Elements on which action at EU level is possible

The Court of Justice has confirmed in several cases the importance of providing effective access to justice, notably by giving members of the public and associations an active role in defending the environment.

Access to justice could be improved in two ways – through non-legislative means such as guidance documents, or through binding EU legislation. The purpose of the consultation is to canvass views on these options and related topics.

Next Steps

The consultation is open until 23 September 2013. The Commission will then analyse the results and decide on the possible next steps.


Access to justice in environmental matters is an international obligation stemming from the Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters ratified by the EU in 2005. It is also a general principle of EU law confirmed by the Court of Justice of the EU.

The Commission previously proposed legislation on environmental access to justice in 2003 to cover areas like legal standing (i.e. who has the right to bring cases concerning the environment before courts), but this has not progressed in discussions with the Council and Parliament. The policy and political context is now one in which the Council and Parliament as well as the Committee of the Regions seek improvements in relation to access to justice in Member States. This is reflected in the discussions on the proposed 7th Environmental Action Programme.

For more information:

To participate to the consultation see:


For more information and an explanatory memorandum please see:



See also:



Bathing Water


Water at nearly all of Europe’s beaches – and most of its rivers and lakes – are clean enough to swim in. And the quality is improving.

If you’re planning a trip to the beach this year you can rest easy – the water at 95% of beaches is clean enough to meet minimum EU standards. Of bathing sites in rivers and lakes, 91% make the grade.

In the latest report, most sites were given an excellent rating for 2012 – the same proportion as in 2011. But more managed a “sufficient” rating than in the previous year.

2012 water testing

The European Environment Agency’s (EEA) annual bathing water reportlooked at samples from more than 22 000 bathing sites around Europe.

Water was tested for harmful pollutants and bacteria, such as E. coli – possibly from sewage or livestock waste.

Best… and worst performers

The top performers in 2012 were Cyprus and Luxembourg, with all listed bathing sites found to be “excellent”. Malta, Croatia and Greece were the next best, with over 90% rated “excellent”.

The worst performers in terms of not meeting minimum standards were Belgium (13%), the Netherlands (7%) and the United Kingdom (6%).

In the UK, 58.2% of 629 bathing sites tested were excellent, 35.6% were of good or sufficient quality, but 37 fell short of the required minimum.

Although water quality has improved overall, both the Commission and the EEA want more to be done to ensure all the EU’s waters are suitable for bathing and drinking. This means cutting down on pollution from sewage, improving water drainage from farms and farmland and better control of animal waste affecting beaches.

For more information visit www.ec.europa.eu