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EU Clean Air Policy

The EU Clean Air Package which has been accepted by Ireland contains a suite of policies and legislative proposals to update and modernise EU clean air legislation to reflect improved scientific knowledge and understanding of the health and environment impacts of air pollution. The Clean Air Programme for Europe describes the problem and sets out new interim objectives for reducing health and environmental impacts up to 2030.
The EU Clean Air Package contains a suite of policies and legislative proposals to update and modernise EU clean air legislation to reflect improved scientific knowledge and understanding of the health and environment impacts of air pollution. The main components include:

  • new Clean Air Programme for Europe with measures to ensure that existing targets are met in the short term, and new air quality objectives for the period up to 2030. The package also includes support measures to help cut air pollution, with a focus on improving air quality in cities, supporting research and innovation, and promoting international cooperation
  • revised National Emission Ceilings Directive (NEC Directive) with more ambitious and protective national emission ceilings for key pollutants, and
  • new Directive to reduce pollution from medium-sized combustion installations, such as energy plants for street blocks or large buildings, and small industry installations.

The Clean Air Package is estimated to deliver significant benefits across the EU by 2030, including to:

  • avoid 58,000 premature deaths,
  • save 123,000 km2 of ecosystems, (including 56,000 km2 protected Natura 2000 sites) from nitrogen pollution, and
  • save 19,000 km2 forest ecosystems from acidification.

Revised targets for national emissions
The main legislative proposal is the revision to the NEC Directive which sets new national targets for 2020 and 2030 for the most important priority air pollutants and was formally adopted at the end of 2016. It sets tighter limits for 2030 for five air pollutants - particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), ammonia (NH3) and volatile organic compounds (VOC).

The aim of the revised directive is to cut the negative impacts of air pollution on human health by almost half by 2030 by reducing levels of illness, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and premature death. The directive is the central element of the EU Package. Consideration of the national approach to implementing and delivering these targets will be a central consideration of the national Clean Air Strategy.

Identified major pollutants
The EU has identified the main air pollutants and their sources. Air pollution is caused mainly by the combustion of fossil fuels for example, solid fuel for home heating or for the provision of energy in industry, transport and power generation as well as agricultural activity.


The major air pollutants are:

Particulate matter (PM) is a general term for very small particles in the atmosphere, emitted by road vehicles, shipping, power generation and households, and from natural sources such as sea salt, wind-blown soil and sand. It can cause ill health, contributing to respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer. Particulate matter is defined in two categories depending on it size, namely, coarse particulate matter known as PM10 because it has an aerodynamic diameter of less than 10 microns, and fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 because it has an aerodynamic diameter of less than 2.5 microns.

Ground-level ozone (O3) is a secondary pollutant produced by complex chemical reactions in sunlight. It can decrease lung function, aggravate asthma and other lung diseases, and causes damage to agricultural crops, forests, and plants, by reducing their growth rates.

Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is emitted by power generation industry, shipping and households. It harms human health and contributes to acidification of soils and inland waters.

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are emitted by road vehicles, shipping, power generation, industry and households. Like SO2, they harm human health and contribute to acid rain.

Ammonia (NH3) is emitted by activities linked to manure and fertilisers management in agriculture and the use of fertilisers in agriculture. It harms human health as a building block or precursor for secondary PM, and contributes to acidification and eutrophication. Estimates indicate that up to 15% of PM2.5 in Ireland is derived from ammonia from agriculture.

Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are emitted from solvents in products and industry, road vehicles, household heating and power generation. VOCs are the key component in the formation of ground-level ozone.

Methane (CH4) is emitted by natural sources such as wetlands, as well as human activities such as agriculture (the raising of livestock) and leakage from natural gas systems and the raising of livestock. Methane is a key building block in the formation of ozone, as well as a powerful greenhouse gas.

What is currently being done at international and EU level to tackle air pollution?
Air pollution crosses national borders so it is a matter of international concern. The EU and the wider international community are attempting to address air pollution.

At the International level cooperation takes place under the 1979 UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP), which has a number of legally binding protocols.

The Gothenburg Protocol to Abate Acidification, Eutrophication and Ground-level Ozone aims at

  • limiting air emissions of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, VOCs, ammonia and from Europe and North America,
  • setting national emission ceilings for the main air pollutants which may not be exceeded from 2010.
  • Reduced ceilings agreed for 2020.

At EU level, the air quality policy framework is:

  • The 2005 EU Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution, setting out strategic policy objectives, which have now been updated;
  • The 2001 National Emission Ceilings Directive (NECD), establishing national emission ceilings for 2010 for all Member States covering four main pollutants, which has now been revised;
  • The Ambient Air Quality Directives, setting local air quality limits which may not be exceeded anywhere in the EU (the standards in this Directive have not been revised at this point in time); and
  • Source-specific legislation designed to limit emissions from specific economic sectors.
  • Further information on the EU framework can be found on the European Commission's website.