Pollution Levels and Emission Standards


Driver description
Interactions with the Environment Domain
Interactions within the Social Domain
Interactions with the Economy Domain
Interactions with the Technology Domain
Impacts on Mobility and Transport

Driver description

  • “Emissions of a range of air pollutants and greenhouse gases occur as a result of almost all economic and societal activities, including electricity generation and industrial production; transport; residential heating; and product use; agriculture and waste treatment.” (Ref: CO_0134)
  • “Within the EU, the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive (EC, 2001b) imposes ceilings (or limits) that must be met by 2010 for emissions of four key air pollutants (NOX, SO2, NMVOC and NH3) that harm human health and the environment. Internationally, the issue of air pollution emissions is also addressed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (the LRTAP Convention) and its protocols (UNECE, 1979). The Gothenburg 'multi-pollutant' Protocol to the LRTAP Convention (UNECE, 1999) also contains 2010 national emission ceilings for those countries that have ratified the protocol. For the EU Member States, these ceilings are either equal to or less ambitious than those in the NEC Directive. Both the NEC Directive and Gothenburg Protocol are currently under review.” (Ref. CO_0226)
  • “In terms of the main activities responsible for air pollution, the top polluting sources across Europe in 2008 included agriculture and fuel combustion by power plants, passenger and heavy-duty vehicles, and households.” (Ref: CO_0134)
  • “At present, PM[1] and O3 are Europe's most problematic pollutants in terms of harm to health.” (Ref: CO_0129)
  • “Emissions of primary particulate matter from road transport decreased by around 14 % between 1990 and 2005, mainly due to improvements in diesel-fuelled vehicles. Without the introduction of the Euro standards for road transport vehicles, emissions would have been more than doubled during this period.” (Ref: CO_0226)
  • “Traffic-related emissions of air pollutants continue to contribute to air quality problems and associated health effects in most European urban areas. Traffic emissions of particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and NOx are the local pollutants of most concern as the daily limit value of PM10 and the annual limit value for NO2 are exceeded most extensively (...). Road traffic may also contribute to high levels of benzene and poly-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in some conurbations.” (Ref: CO_0102)
  • “Ozone is a strong photochemical oxidant. In elevated concentrations it causes serious health problems and damage to materials and vegetation such as agricultural crops. The main sectors that emit ozone precursors are road transport, power and heat generation plants, household (heating), industry, and petrol storage and distribution.” (Ref: CO_0220)
  • “The road transport group is nevertheless a major source of the ozone precursors NOX and CO in the European Union, in 2009 contributing 42 % and 34 % of total EU‑27 emissions respectively. It is also a major source of NMVOC, PM2.5 and PM10 emissions. Passenger cars and heavy duty vehicles are the principal contributors to NOX emissions from this sector, whereas for CO passenger cars alone contribute around 73 % of the emissions from the same sector.” (Ref: CO_0233)
  • “It is important to note, however, that a number of NOX vehicle emission standards have not been as effective in reducing real-world NOX emissions as was originally anticipated, especially for diesel vehicles (both passenger vehicles and heavy- and light-duty vehicles). Much of the past reduction in NOX from road transport can thus mainly be ascribed to gasoline passenger cars and not diesel vehicles.” (Ref: CO_0224)
  • “In contrast to the road transport sector, emissions of NOX from aviation have increased significantly since 1990. Emissions from both domestic and international flight activities increased by 79 % between 1990 and 2009 (but decreased by 6 % from 2008 to 2009).” (Ref: CO_0233)
  • “For the sector 'road transport' the main heavy metal is Pb, showing high relative emission reduction (– 99 %) between 1990 and 2009. However over the last years, little progress has been made in reducing emissions further; total emissions of Pb have remained largely constant.” (Ref: CO_0224)
  • “(...) under the current policy scenario, emissions of the main air pollutants, excepting NH3, are all projected to decline by 2020 for the EEA-32 and Western Balkan countries. Compared with 2008 emission levels, the largest decreases in percentage terms are projected for emissions of NOX and SO2.” (Ref: CO_0134)
  • “A time horizon of 2050 has been suggested as an aspirational target year by which Europe's long-term objectives of achieving levels of air pollution that do not lead to unacceptable harm to human health and the environment should be met. Preliminary assessments indicate that in order to meet these objectives, for SO2 there should be an emissions reduction in the range 40–60 % compared with 2010, especially in northern and central Europe. For NOX and NH3 the required reductions are in the range of 70–90 % and for O3 precursors 70–80 %, in particular in southern, western and central Europe. In urban areas a 40–60 % emission reduction of PM would be needed (Maas et al., 2009).” (Ref: CO_0134)
  • “EU action has focused on establishing minimum quality standards for ambient air and tackling the problems of acid rain and ground level ozone. Polluting emissions from large combustion plant and mobile sources have been reduced; fuel quality improved and environmental protection requirements integrated into the transport and energy sectors. Despite significant improvements, serious air pollution impacts persist.” (Ref. CO_0225)

[1] Particulate matter (PM) is the general term used for particles with a wide range of sizes and chemical compositions. PM2.5 refers to 'fine particles' with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less. PM10 refers to the particles with a diameter of 10 micrometres or less.

Interactions within the Environment Domain

Climate change impacts

  • “In addition to their impacts as air pollutants, tropospheric O3 and some constituents of PM affect the radiative forcing of the atmosphere. Their impacts are complicated to assess, but in general emissions of primary PM, such as black carbon and tropospheric O3 increase radiative forcing leading to a net warming effect in the atmosphere, while secondary PM formed from precursor emissions reduces atmospheric radiative forcing (IPCC, 2007).” (Ref: CO_0134)
  • “Air pollution may also impact the Earth's climate. Some air pollutants interfere with the Earth's energy balance and are therefore known as 'climate forcers'. These can either be gases (e.g. ozone) or airborne particulate matter (aerosols). Some climate forcers reflect solar radiation (e.g. sulphate aerosols) leading to net cooling, while others (e.g. black carbon aerosols) absorb solar radiation, thereby warming the atmosphere. In addition, aerosols influence the formation, microphysics and optical properties of clouds, resulting in indirect climatological effects. Deposition of certain aerosols (e.g. black carbon) may also change the Earth's surface reflectivity (albedo), especially on ice- and snowcovered surfaces, thereby accelerating melting.” (Ref: CO_0129)
  • “Several air pollutants are also climate forcers, having a potential impact on the planet's climate.” (Ref: CO_0129)

GHG mitigation

  • “In the EU‑15, the implementation of air pollution control measures for large combustion plants (the LCP Directive, later reinforced by the IPPC Directive) produced important co-benefits for GHG emissions by encouraging efficiency improvements and fuel switching to cleaner fuels. These positive developments took place despite the fact that such policies were not specifically designed to reduce GHG emissions.” (Ref: CO_0200)

Emission trading schemes

  • “It is important to note, however, that efforts to control emissions of one group of pollutants can have either synergistic or sometimes antagonistic effects on other pollutants, in turn leading to unforeseen benefits or disadvantages. (...) The flexibility that the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) is designed to create may be limited by the need to meet national emission ceilings or local air quality limits at the Member State level. Governments may thus need to impose air pollutant control measures at ETS facilities going beyond Best Available Techniques, which in turn could increase emissions of greenhouse gases. The extent to which such additional policies effectively constitute negative impacts on the ETS sector is unclear.” (Ref: CO_0134)

Noise levels and emissions standards

  • “In many cases noise reduction is a side effect of socio-economic measures that are primarily implemented for other purposes such as air pollution or traffic safety.” (Ref: CO_0144)

Energy availability, production and consumption

  • “The energy production and distribution sector remains by far the most important source of SOX emissions and is also a major source of NOX[1], Cd[2], Hg[3] and PCB[4] emissions, despite some significant reductions of these pollutants in the past.” (Ref: CO_0233)

[1] Nitrogen oxides

[2] Cadmium

[3] Mercury

[4] Polychlorinated biphenyls

Scarce resources of raw materials

  • “Ground water is (...) expected to become even more polluted in the coming decades, since nitrates and pesticides filtrate into groundwater very slowly. While rivers are now recovering from severe pollution as a result of a sharp reduction in point source pollution, diffuse pollution will continue for decades to come and will pose a threat to the quality of drinking water in numerous areas, both in Eastern and in Western Europe.” (Ref. CO_1023)

Interactions with the Social Domain

Population ageing

Through its impact on health, high level of pollution can speed the ageing process in human being.


  • “Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health. Numerous scientific studies have linked air pollution to health effects including: harm to the respiratory system, leading to the development or aggravation of respiratory diseases, decreased lung function, increased frequency and severity of respiratory symptoms such as coughing and difficulty breathing, or increased susceptibility to respiratory infections; harm to the cardiovascular system; harm to the nervous system, affecting learning, memory and behaviour; harm to the reproductive system; cancer.” (Ref: CO_0129)
  • “Exposure to air, water and soil pollution, to chemicals in the environment, or to noise, can cause cancers, respiratory, cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and communicable diseases, as well as poisoning and neuropsychiatric disorders. A recent World Health Organization (WHO) study suggests that 24% of the global burden of disease and 23% of all deaths are attributable to environmental factors.” (Ref: CO_5009)
  • “At first glance, the health impacts of ozone may appear to be less extreme than those associated with exposure to PM10. However, the impact of ozone on health could be underestimated, as the assessment assumed a cut-off of 35 ppb. According to the WHO (2006), it is not possible to identify a lower threshold for the effects of ozone on mortality.” (Ref: CO_5009)
  • “In the year 2000, exposure to particulate matter, particularly PM2.5, was estimated to reduce average statistical life expectancy by approximately nine months in the EU-25. This equates to approximately 3.6 million life years lost or 348 000 premature mortalities per annum. Significant progress triggered by current legislation is expected in reducing harmful emissions of particulate matter and its precursors between now and 2020 such that the average loss in statistical life expectancy is expected to reduce to around 5.5 months. This would still equate to 272 000 premature deaths per annum in 2020. The associated health costs of particulate matter would still amount to several billions of euros per annum.” (Ref: CO_0102)
  • “For 2030, the worldwide number of premature deaths and years of life lost are estimated to be 3.1 million and 25.4 million, respectively.” (Ref: CO_5009)
Figure 1‑64 Premature deaths from PM10 urban air pollution for 2000 and 2030


Source: OECD Environmental Outlook to 2030 (Ref: CO_5009)

Interactions with the Economy Domain

Fiscal policy

  • “The promotion of unleaded petrol within the EU and in other EEA member countries through a combination of fiscal and regulatory measures has been a particular success story. EU Member States have for example completely phased out the use of leaded petrol, a goal that was regulated by Directive 98/70/ EC. Nevertheless, the road transport sector still remains an important source of Pb, still contributing around 10 % of total Pb emissions in the EU‑27.” (Ref: CO_0233)

Interactions with the Technology Domain

Pollution abatement and monitoring

  • “The application of technology has been the primary means of reducing the environmental impacts of transport in the last two decades. It has also been identified as the most important means to achieve the European Commission's proposed target of a 60 % reduction in GHGs from transport by 2050. Biofuels and electricity (and potentially hydrogen) are expected to be the key energy carriers utilized to reduce GHG from transport in the long term; however, there are still issues to be addressed.” (Ref: CO_5030)
  • “To further reduce road transport's impact on air quality, diesel NOX emissions could for example be targeted. Specific NOX abatement technologies for diesel-powered vehicles such as selective catalytic reduction (SCR) (especially for heavy-duty vehicles) are one possible option.” (Ref: CO_0226)

Impacts on Mobility and Transport

Increasing development of regulative measures for pollutant emissions

  • “The European Union has been committed over the past 20 years to developing and implementing policies aimed at a cleaner European vehicle fleet in terms of air pollutant emissions. The Euro standards have been, and continue to be, introduced in phases, with the introduction times and actual standards varying by pollutant, vehicle category and vehicle weight class or engine volume and fuel type (see Table below for a summary of the introduction dates for each of the Euro standards).” (Ref. CO_0226)
Figure 1‑65 Introduction dates (*) of the Euro emission standards for road vehicles

Source: Impact of selected policy measures on Europe's air quality (Ref: CO_0226)

  • “Directive 2009/33/EC on the Promotion of Clean and Energy Efficient Road Transport Vehicles (EC, 2009c) aims at stimulating broad market introduction of environmentally friendly vehicles. The Directive requires that energy and environmental impacts linked to vehicle operation be incorporated in purchase decisions. These lifetime impacts include vehicle energy consumption, CO2 emissions, and emissions of the regulated pollutants of NOx (Nitorgene Oxide), NMHC (Non-Methane Hydrocarbon) and PM (particulate matter).” (Ref. CO_0234)
  • “Green Public Procurement (GPP)[1] is a powerful market mover for the introduction of new technologies and stimulates procurement of energy-efficient and low-carbon vehicles. This initiative is directed to national, regional and local contracting authorities and contracting entities and operators of public transport services.” (Ref. CO_0234)

[1] Green Public Procurement (GPP) means that public authorities and services take account of environmental factors when procuring products, services or works. (Ref: CO_0137)