European Air Quality Standards Help Combat Pollution
Europe has significantly improved its air quality, but air pollution remains a problem in urban areas across the continent.
Europe’s air has improved markedly since the Great Smog of London killed thousands in 1952, and fighting air pollution is arguably one of the European Union’s greatest environmental successes. Nevertheless, although concentrations of many air pollutants have fallen significantly, more people die each year from the impacts of air pollution than in traffic accidents, while summer smog caused by ground-level ozone regularly exceeds safe limits, according to the European Commission.
The EU has been working to cut air pollutants since the 1970s, driven by rising awareness of the adverse health impacts of high levels of substances like
(PM) and ozone in ambient air, which include a sharp rise in asthma cases.
has been particularly effective in reducing sulphur emissions, a major cause of acid rain, which have fallen by 72% between 1990 and 2007. However, efforts to curb nitrogen emissions, which primarily emanate from agriculture and transport, have been less successful. Consequently, nitrogen has become the main acidifying pollutant in Europe’s air.
The EU has established health-based air quality standards and has a large body of legislation on ambient air quality. Depending on the pollutant, the legislation imposes either binding limit values or objectives. They apply for varying time periods, reflecting the fact that various pollutants require different exposure times to impact upon health.
Air Quality Framework Directive
set the scene in 1996 by outlining the principles of assessing and managing air quality in the member states. It listed the pollutants for which limit and target values were to be defined.
The law was fleshed out with four subsequent daughter directives, introducing limit values for various air pollutants including sulphur and nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter (PM) and lead.
Most existing air quality legislation was streamlined into a single directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe (
) in 2008. This did not change existing air quality standards but added new ones for fine particles (PM2.5).
In parallel, the EU’s
National Emissions Ceiling Directive
(NECD) in 2001 introduced legally-binding emission limits on a number of air pollutants that cause acidification, eutrophication and ground-level ozone pollution. It set national ceilings for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and ammonia, which member states had to comply with by 2010.
However, both air quality standards and emission limits have proved difficult to comply with within the required timeframe. Although emissions of all air pollutants have fallen since 1990, urban concentrations exceed binding limit values in a significant proportion of European cities.
Moreover, emission cuts have not necessarily translated into better air quality. Although emissions of particulate matter and ozone have fallen since 1997, concentrations measured in the air have largely remained the same, which could in part be a result of global warming or emissions travelling from other continents, according to the
European Environment Agency
. Reinforced global efforts to combat climate change are therefore expected to deliver air quality improvements too.
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