Air and noise pollution

Air pollution harms our health and our environment. It has many sources, but mainly stems from industry, transport, energy production and agriculture. The new EU air quality strategy pursues full compliance with existing air quality legislation by 2020 and sets long-term objectives for 2030. Growing traffic and industrial activities often also lead to noise pollution, which can have negative impacts on human health. The Environmental Noise Directive helps to identify noise levels within the EU and to take the necessary measures to bring them down to acceptable levels. Separate legislation regulates noise emission from specific sources.

Legal basis

Articles 191 to 193 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

General background

Air pollution is bad for our health and for our environment. It can cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as cancer, and is the leading environmental cause of premature death in the EU. Certain substances, such as arsenic, cadmium, nickel and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are human genotoxic carcinogens, and there is no identifiable threshold below which they do not pose a risk. Air pollution also negatively impacts on the quality of water and soil and damages ecosystems through eutrophication (excess nitrogen pollution) and acid rain. Therefore, agriculture and forests are affected, as well as material and buildings. Air pollution has many sources, but mainly stems from industry, transport, energy production and agriculture. While air pollution in Europe has generally decreased in recent decades, the Union’s long-term objective, namely ‘to achieve levels of air quality that do not have significant negative impacts on human health and the environment’, is still at risk. In urban areas (‘hotspots’), especially, where the majority of Europeans live, air quality standards are often contravened. The most problematic pollutants today are fine particles, nitrogen dioxides and ground-level ozone.

Environmental noise levels are rising in urban areas, mainly as a result of increasing traffic volumes and intensifying industrial and recreational activities. It is estimated that around 20% of the population of the EU are subjected to noise levels that are considered unacceptable. This can affect the quality of life and lead to significant levels of stress, sleep disturbance and adverse health effects such as cardiovascular problems. Noise also has an impact on wildlife.

Achievements in combating air pollution

Air quality in Europe has much improved since the EU first started to tackle this issue in the 1970s. Substances such as sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), benzene (C6H6) and lead (Pb) have been significantly reduced since then. The EU has three different legal mechanisms to manage air pollution: defining general air quality standards for ambient concentrations of air pollutants; setting (national) limits on total pollutant emissions; and designing source-specific legislation, e.g. to control industrial emissions or set standards for vehicle emissions, energy efficiency or fuel quality. This legislation is complemented by strategies and measures to promote environmental protection and its integration into the transport and energy sectors.

a.Ambient air quality

On the basis of the objectives of the 2005 Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution (to reduce fine particles by 75% and ground-level ozone by 60%; and to reduce the threat to the natural environment from both acidification and eutrophication by 55% — all by 2020 as from 2000 levels), a revised Directive on ambient air quality was adopted in June 2008, merging most of the existing legislation in this field. Only the fourth ‘daughter directive’ of the earlier Air Quality Framework Directive is currently still in place, setting target values (less strict than limit values) for arsenic, cadmium, nickel and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality aims at reducing air pollution to levels that minimise harmful effects on human health or the environment. To that end, it lays down measures to define and establish ambient air quality objectives (i.e. limits not to be exceeded anywhere in the EU) in relation to the main air pollutants (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, (fine) particulate matter, lead, benzene, carbon monoxide and ozone). Member States are required to define zones and agglomerations in order to assess and manage ambient air quality, to monitor long-term trends and to make the information available to the public. Where the air quality is good it must be maintained; where limit values are exceeded, action has to be taken.

The Directive on national emission ceilings (NECs) sets national emission limits for four key air pollutants (SO2, NOx, non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC) and ammonia) that are responsible for acidification, ground-level ozone and eutrophication, in order to reduce their harmful effects, taking the years 2010 and 2020 as benchmarks. It requires Member States to annually report emissions and projections for these pollutants and to draw up national reduction programmes to reach their individual emission limits. Member States were supposed to meet these ceilings by 2010; however, many have breached at least one, sometimes over several years. The long-term objectives of the Directive are not to exceed critical levels and loads and to effectively protect everyone against recognised health risks from air pollution. The NEC Directive is currently under revision and will be replaced towards the end of 2016. The new directive will include updated national ceilings for 2020 and 2030, covering the four above-mentioned pollutants as well as two additional ones, i.e. fine particulate matter and methane, and intermediate emission levels for the year 2025 applicable to the same pollutants.

The revision of the NEC Directive is part of a new policy package on clean air launched by the Commission at the end of 2013, with two key objectives, namely compliance with existing legislation until 2020 and reduction of long-term impacts of air pollution. The package also includes a new Clean Air Programme for Europe, describing the problem and the policy measures necessary to achieve the new interim objectives for reducing health and environmental impacts up to 2030 and a proposal for ratification of the amended Gothenburg Protocol to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on long-range transboundary air pollution to abate acidification, eutrophication and ground-level ozone. A proposal for a new directive on the limitation of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and dust emissions into the air from medium combustion plants (large combustion plants are already regulated), laying down rules on monitoring emissions of carbon monoxide (CO), is also included in the package.

b.Road transport

Several directives have been adopted to limit pollution from road transport by setting emission performance standards for different categories of vehicles, such as cars, light commercial vehicles, lorries, buses and motorcycles, and by regulating the quality of fuel. As of September 2014 the emission standard Euro 6 for cars and light vans applies to all new car models (type approval) and as of a year later to the registration and sale of all new cars and light vans (all deadlines are extended by one year for light commercial vehicles and special needs cars). It sets emission limits for a number of air pollutants, in particular nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM). Member States are required to refuse the type approval, registration, sale and introduction of vehicles (and their replacement pollution control devices) that do not comply with these limits. The standard also includes a review clause on the driving cycle and the test procedure, to ensure that the testing takes place in real-world driving conditions. Regulation (EC) No 715/2007 furthermore lays down rules for in-service conformity, durability of pollution control devices, on-board diagnostic (OBD) systems and measurement of fuel consumption, and regulates access to vehicle repair and maintenance information for independent operators. The same applies to Regulation (EC) No 595/2009, which fixes emission limit values for heavy-duty vehicles (buses and trucks, Euro VI as of January 2013). Both regulations are currently undergoing revision and will be amended by a new regulation on approval and market surveillance of motor vehicles.

To further reduce pollution from car emissions, the EU has introduced a ban on the marketing of leaded petrol and the obligation to make sulphur-free fuels available within the Union. Directive 2009/33/EC on the promotion of clean and energy-efficient road transport vehicles requires contracting authorities to take into account lifetime energy and environmental impacts, including energy consumption and emissions of CO2 and of certain pollutants, when purchasing road transport vehicles, with the objective of promoting and stimulating the market for clean and energy-efficient vehicles.

c.Other transport emissions

To reduce air pollution from ships — said to be responsible for 50 000 premature deaths annually — Directive 2012/33/EU limits the sulphur content of marine bunker fuels in European seas. The general sulphur limit will fall from 3.5% to 0.5% by 2020 in line with limits agreed by the International Maritime Organisation. In certain designated ‘Sulphur Emission Control Areas’ (SECAs), such as the Baltic Sea, the English Channel and the North Sea, an even stricter standard of 0.1% now applies as of 2015. Further emission performance standards have been set for non-road mobile machinery, such as excavators, bulldozers and chainsaws, as well as for agricultural and forestry tractors and recreational craft.

d.Emissions from industry

The Industrial Emissions Directive covers highly polluting industrial activities that account for a significant share of pollution in Europe. It consolidates and merges all relevant directives (on waste incineration, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), large combustion plants, integrated pollution prevention and control, etc.) into one coherent legislative instrument, with the aim of facilitating its implementation and minimising pollution from various industrial sources. It lays down the obligations to be met by all industrial installations, contains a list of measures for the prevention of water, air and soil pollution, and provides a basis for drawing up operating licences or permits for industrial installations. Using an integrated approach, it takes into account the total environmental performance of a plant, including the use of raw materials or energy efficiency. The concept of ‘best available techniques’ (BATs) plays a central role, as do flexibility, environmental inspections and public participation.

Achievements regarding noise pollution

Environmental noise: The Framework Directive on environmental noise (currently undergoing a fitness check) aims to reduce exposure to environmental noise by harmonising noise indicators and assessment methods, gathering noise exposure information in the form of ‘noise maps’, and making this information available to the public. On this basis the Member States are required to draw up action plans to address noise problems. Noise maps and action plans need to be reviewed at least every five years.

Road traffic: Regulation (EU) No 540/2014 sets limits on the permissible sound level of motor vehicles, introducing a new test method for measuring noise emissions, lowering the currently valid noise limit values and including additional sound emission provisions in the type-approval procedure. Regulation (EU) No 168/2013 and Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) No 134/2014 set noise limits for mopeds and motorcycles. Complementary to this, Directive 2001/43/EC provides for the testing and limiting of tyre rolling noise levels and for their gradual reduction.

Air traffic: Regulation (EU) No 598/2014 establishes aviation noise rules in line with the ICAO’s ‘balanced approach’, applying as from June 2016 for airports with more than 50 000 civil aircraft movements per year. This approach consists of four principal elements designed to identify the most cost-efficient way of tackling aircraft noise at each individual airport: reducing noise levels at source through deployment of modern aircraft, managing the land around airports in a sustainable way, adapting operational procedures to reduce the noise impact on the ground, and, if required, introducing operating restrictions such as bans on night flights.

Rail traffic: In the context of the railway interoperability directive, a technical specification for interoperability (TSI) on noise sets maximum levels of noise produced by new (conventional) railway vehicles. The noise charging regulation incentivises the retrofitting of freight wagons with low-noise composite brake blocks.

Other noise sources: Large industrial and agricultural installations covered by the Industrial Emissions Directive are able to receive permits following the use of best available techniques (BATs) as references. Noise emitted by construction plants (e.g. noise from excavators, loaders, earth-moving machines and tower cranes), as well as from recreational craft or equipment for outdoor use, is also regulated.

Role of the European Parliament

Parliament has played a decisive role in the formulation of a progressive environmental policy to combat air and noise pollution. For instance, MEPs voted to drastically lower the harmful sulphur content of marine fuels from 3.5% to 0.5% by 2020. MEPs successfully fought attempts to postpone this deadline by five years. At the instigation of the EP, the Commission has been forced to consider extending the stricter SECA limits to all EU territorial waters. As regards the revision of the NEC Directive, Parliament called for more ambitious national ceilings to be met by 2030 and argued for binding targets for 2025 to ensure that Member States were on track to meet their 2030 targets. On a more general basis, MEPs urged the EU to identify and respond to source control legislation that is failing to work, as in the case of the discrepancy shown between real world emissions and NOx test emissions from Euro 6 diesel cars. In the wake of the discovery in the US that the Volkswagen group used test-cheating software to drive down NOx emissions, the EP set up a temporary committee of inquiry (EMIS) to investigate the matter.

Concerning noise pollution, Parliament has repeatedly stressed the need for further cuts in limit values and for improved measurement procedures with regard to environmental noise. It has called for the establishment of EU values for noise around airports and also for the extension of noise reduction measures to cover military subsonic jet aircraft. Parliament has succeeded in protecting the power of local authorities to decide on noise-related measures at airports, including possible bans on night flying. It has furthermore approved the phasing-in of new noise limits for cars with the aim of reducing the limit to 68 decibels (db) from the original 74 db. MEPs have also successfully campaigned for the introduction of labels to inform consumers about noise levels, on lines similar to those of the existing schemes for fuel efficiency, tyre noise and CO2 emissions.

Tina Ohliger

03/2017