Air and noise pollution

Air pollution is one of the largest environmental health risks in Europe. The EU zero pollution action plan adopted in 2021 aims at reducing air and noise pollution to levels no longer considered harmful to health and natural ecosystems. Both the legislation and an EU-wide monitoring network aim to ensure that pollution is below critical values, and that the EU is on track to reduce air pollution to levels no longer considered harmful by 2050.

Legal basis

Articles 191-193 (Environment) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

General background

Air pollution can cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as cancer, and is the leading environmental cause of premature death in the EU. Certain pollutants, such as arsenic, cadmium, nickel and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are human genotoxic carcinogens, capable of causing cancer by directly altering the genetic material of target cells . Air pollution also negatively impacts the quality of water and soil and damages ecosystems, for example through eutrophication (excess nitrogen pollution) and acid rain. Agriculture and forests, as well as material and buildings, are therefore affected. Air pollution has many sources, but mainly stems from industry, transport, energy production and agriculture. Air quality standards are often not complied with, especially in urban areas (air pollution ‘hotspots’) – which is where the majority of Europeans live. The most problematic pollutants today are fine particles, nitrogen oxides and ground-level ozone. The European Environment Agency’s briefing entitled ‘Europe’s air quality status 2023’ shows that excessive air pollution, surpassing EU standards, is widespread in the EU, and that it often exceeds World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. The EU zero pollution action plan for 2050 aims to reduce pollution of air, soil and water, as well as noise and plastic pollution, to levels no longer considered harmful to health and natural ecosystems. This long-term goal has been broken down into key targets for 2030, and progress towards the targets is continually monitored and assessed. The goal to reduce premature deaths caused by air pollution by 55% is likely to be met, and the reduction may be even greater, reaching 66% by 2030, according to current trends.

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 quality of life and lead to significant levels of stress, sleep disturbance and adverse health effects, such as cardiovascular problems. Noise also negatively affects wildlife. The EU zero pollution action plan aims to reduce by 30% the proportion of people who are chronically disturbed by noise pollution created by transport, but this goal is not likely to be achieved by 2030.

Achievements in combating air pollution

Air quality in Europe has much improved since the EU first started to tackle this issue in the 1970s. Concentrations of 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, for example to control industrial emissions or to set standards for vehicle emissions, energy efficiency or fuel quality. In addition, transboundary air pollution is tackled through international cooperation with strategic partners. The legislation is complemented by strategies and measures to promote environmental protection and its integration into other sectors, which are all key deliverables of the European Green Deal.

A. Ambient air quality

Air quality legislation consists of two key directives. Directive 2004/107/EC on ambient air quality came into effect in June 2008 and relates to substances – arsenic, cadmium, mercury, nickel and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – for which a threshold concentration in ambient air can be identified below which they do not pose a risk to human health. Directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality lays down measures to define and establish ambient air quality objectives (i.e. limits not to be exceeded anywhere in the EU) relating to the main air pollutants: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide / nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, ozone, benzene, lead, carbon monoxide, arsenic, cadmium, nickel and benzo(a)pyrene. Member States are required to define zones and urban agglomerations in order to assess and manage ambient air quality, to monitor long-term trends and to make the information available to the public. This data is collected through an EU-wide monitoring network. Where air quality is good, it must be maintained; where limit values are exceeded, action has to be taken. As part of the European Green Deal, the Commission proposed to revise the two Ambient Air Quality Directives, aligning EU air quality standards more closely with the WHO recommendations. In February 2024, the Council and Parliament reached a provisional agreement, which will need to be formally adopted.

Directive (EU) 2016/2284 (the National Emission Ceilings Directive) sets stricter national emission ceilings for the five key pollutants – sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, non-methane volatile organic compounds, ammonia and fine particulate matter. The directive requires Member States to draw up national air pollution control programmes.

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. The current Euro 6 emission standard for cars and light vans sets emission limits on a number of air pollutants, in particular nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. In line with the Commission’s 2020 sustainable and smart mobility strategy, more stringent air pollution standards will be introduced with the Euro 7 regulation. The provisional agreement reached between Parliament and the Council was approved by Parliament in March 2023. Since September 2017, a more realistic test cycle has been in use: ‘Real Driving Emissions’ are now determined for new car models to better reflect real driving conditions. Furthermore, there are rules on in-service conformity (which require vehicles to continue to conform to the standards while in circulation), durability of pollution control devices, on-board diagnostic systems, measurement of fuel consumption and access to vehicle repair and maintenance information for independent operators. Similar rules are in place for heavy-duty vehicles such as buses and lorries. A 2018 regulation on type approval and market surveillance of motor vehicles entered into force on 1 September 2020, with the aim of increasing the quality and independence of technical services and verifying whether vehicles already on the road comply with the requirements.

C. Other transport emissions

To reduce air pollution from ships – said to be responsible for 50 000 premature deaths every year – the EU has set limits on the sulphur content of marine bunker fuels used in ships operating in European seas. The general sulphur limit fell from 3.5% to 0.5% in 2020 in line with limits agreed by the International Maritime Organization. Since 2015, an even stricter standard of 0.1% has applied in certain designated ‘Sulphur Emission Control Areas’, such as the Baltic Sea, the English Channel and the North Sea. Further emission performance standards were set in 2016 for non-road mobile machinery, such as excavators, bulldozers and chainsaws, as well as for agricultural and forestry tractors and recreational craft such as sport boats.

In December 2022, the Council approved the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, a global scheme for reducing CO2 emissions from international aviation also involving EU member states. The ReFuelEU Aviation Regulation, applicable from January 2024, aims to cut aviation’s environmental impact through measures such as the use of sustainable aviation fuels. The corresponding FuelEU Maritime Regulationentered into force in October 2023 and aims for an 80% reduction in ships’ on-board energy greenhouse gas intensity by 2050, encouraging the adoption of renewable and low-carbon fuels.

D. Emissions from industry

The 2010 Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) 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, large combustion plants, integrated pollution prevention and control, etc.) into one coherent legislative instrument, with the aim of facilitating the implementation of the legislation and of minimising pollution from various industrial sources. The IED 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, noise pollution or energy efficiency. The concept of ‘best available techniques’ plays a central role, as do flexibility, environmental inspections and public participation. The IED was complemented in 2015 by a directive on emissions from medium combustion plants.

In November 2023, legislators reached provisional agreement on a revision of the IED, aiming, for example, to ensure full and consistent implementation of the IED across Member States, with tighter permit controls on air and water emissions. This agreement was approved by Parliament in March 2024.

Achievements regarding noise pollution

The EU’s approach to noise pollution is twofold: a general framework for the identification of noise pollution levels requiring action at both Member State and EU level; and a set of legislation on the main sources of noise, such as road, air and rail traffic noise, and noise from equipment for outdoor use.

The 2002 framework directive on environmental noise 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. The most recent implementation report, published in March 2023, confirmed the overall good progress made by most Member States in implementing the directive, despite some initial delays.

The 2014 regulation on the sound level of motor vehicles introduces a new test method for measuring noise emissions, lowers the existing noise limit values and includes additional sound emission provisions in the type-approval procedure. Other regulations deal with noise limits for mopeds, motorcycles and tyre rolling.

Since June 2016, EU aviation noise rules, in line with the ‘balanced approach’ created by the International Civil Aviation Organization, have applied to 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 the source through the deployment of modern aircraft; managing the land around airports in a sustainable way; adapting operational procedures to reduce the impact of noise on the ground; and, if necessary, introducing operating restrictions such as bans on night flights.

In the context of the 2016 railway interoperability directive, a technical specification for interoperability on noise, amended in 2019, sets maximum levels of noise that new (conventional) railway vehicles can produce.

Large industrial and agricultural installations covered by the IED may only operate if in possession of a permit, which is tied to conditions regarding emission limits, including noise, and the use of best available techniques. Noise emitted by construction equipment, as well as by 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, Members of the European Parliament fought attempts to postpone, from 2020 to 2025, the deadline to reduce the harmful sulphur content of marine fuels to 0.5%. In the wake of the discovery in the US that the Volkswagen group used test-cheating software to drive down NOx emissions, Parliament set up a temporary committee of inquiry into emission measurements in the automotive sector to investigate the matter. In its 2017 final report, it called for Member States and car manufacturers to be held accountable and urged them to retrofit or withdraw highly polluting cars from the market.

On 25 March 2021, Parliament adopted a resolution on the implementation of the two Ambient Air Quality Directives. It noted that European air quality standards have been only partially successful and welcomed the European Green Deal’s commitment to revising air quality standards in line with current WHO reference levels.

The resolution also called on the Commission and the Member States to assess the effectiveness of existing emissions legislation and asked for the soonest possible establishment of a set of minimum requirements and best practices for both the preparation and implementation of air quality plans by the Member States. In September 2023, Parliament adopted its position on revised legislation designed to enhance air quality across the EU. With the aim of safeguarding human health, natural ecosystems and biodiversity from air pollution, Parliament proposed more stringent objectives for various pollutants compared to the Commission’s initial recommendations.

With regard to environmental noise, Parliament has repeatedly stressed the need for further reductions in limit values and for improved measurement procedures. It has called for the establishment of EU values for noise around airports and for the extension of noise reduction measures to cover military subsonic jet aircraft. Furthermore, it has approved the phasing-in of new, lower noise limits for cars and has successfully campaigned for the introduction of labels to inform consumers about noise levels.

For more information on this topic, please see the website of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI).


Christian Kurrer / Zuzanna Wala