Skip to main content

Regional Knowledge Center

EU air quality policy

This section will provide a brief overview of the air quality management system in the EU. 

Air quality assessment and management system in the EU

The EU strategies and legislation covers most, but not all elements of air quality assessment and management system. Certain issues are regulated by the EU and are binding for all Member States (e.g. definitions, air quality standards, rules for assessment, emission limit values, reporting, permitting procedures) while others are to be provided by national legislation (e.g. institutional setting or economic instruments). From the regulatory point of view, the Community legislation sets the basic standards mandatory for all Member States but often allows Member States to lay down more stringent requirements at the national level (provided that requirements do not create barrier to the Joint Internal Market).


The content of this section is based on the information materials developed in the framework of the project "Air Quality Governance in ENPI East Countries" (EuropeAid/129522/C/SER/Multi). More information on this project is available here

Policy level

The 6th Environment Action Plan of the European Community 2002 – 2012 (6EAP) represents the basic general environmental policy document. Under the priority area Environment and Health, the following air quality related measures are envisaged:

  • improving the monitoring and assessment of air quality, including the deposition of pollutants, and the provision of information to the public, including the development and use of indicators;
  • to strengthen a coherent and integrated policy on air pollution to cover priorities for further actions, the review and updating where appropriate of air quality standards and national emission ceilings with a view to reach the long term objective of no-exceedance of critical loads and levels and the development of better systems for gathering information, modelling and forecasting;
  • adopting appropriate measures concerning ground-level ozone and particulates;

As prepared in accordance with the 6th Action Plan, the 2005 Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution represents the main strategic document in the field of air quality assessment and management.

The priority impacts addressed by the Thematic Strategy are:

  • Health impact: Fine particles (PM2.5) and ozone,
  • Acidification (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ammonium) and Eutrophication (nitrogen deposition above the critical loads),
  • Non health impact of ground level ozone on vegetation.

The priority measures following the Thematic Strategy are:

  • Euro 5 standards for cars and vans,
  • Euro VI standards for HDV,
  • Revision of national emission ceilings,
  • Regulation of small scale combustion installations,
  • Reduction of ammonium emissions from agriculture,
  • Revision of air quality legislation.


The Thematic Strategy laid down the policy background for the “new generation” of legislation, namely new Air Quality Framework Directive (2008/50/EC) and new IPPC Directive (2010/75/EU) as well as for on-going revision of the National Emission Ceilings Directive (2001/81/EC).

On 18 December 2013, the European Commission adopted a Clean Air Policy Package. This package was based on an extensive review of the EU air policy to date. This policy package includes a Clean Air Programme for Europe, as well as a proposal for Directives on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants (the NEC Directive) and on limitation of emissions of certain pollutants into the air from medium combustion plants (the MCP Directive).

Legislative level

Air quality assessment

Directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe (Air Quality Framework Directive) creates a framework for air quality assessment at the Community level and repeals and replaces the previous Air Quality Framework Directive (96/62/EC), three “daughter directives” (1999/30/EC, 2000/69/EC, 2002/3/EC) and Council Decision 97/101/EC. The main provisions are:

  • Air quality limit values for the protection of human health with mandatory compliance deadlines of 2005 or 2010 (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, PM10, carbon monoxide, benzene and lead),
  • Critical levels for the protection of vegetation (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides),
  • Target values for the protection of human health and of vegetation with conditional compliance deadline in 2010 for ground level ozone,
  • Alert thresholds for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone,
  • Information threshold for ozone,
  • Long-term objective for the protection of human health and of vegetation for ozone,
  • Quantified requirements for PM2.5 with gradual deadlines up to 2020 (national exposure reduction target, exposure concentration obligation, target value, limit value),
  • Detailed rules for air quality assessment (upper and lower assessment thresholds, measurement, modelling, combination, data quality objectives),
  • Detailed rules for measurement (number and siting of sampling points, reference methods),
  • Establishment of zones and agglomerations,
  • Preparation of air quality plans and short-term action plans and (including their detailed content),
  • Information to be available to the public.

Directive 2008/50/EC is supplemented by the Directive 2004/107/EC relating to arsenic, cadmium, mercury, nickel and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in ambient air, which provides for target values for As, Cd, Ni and benzo(a)pyren as marker of PAHs with conditional compliance deadline is 31.12.2012. In the case of Hg, no target value is laid down but measurements are required. Other provisions are similar to those provided for by the Directive 2008/50/EC (rules of assessment, zones and agglomerations, siting and number of sampling points, data quality objectives, reference methods). The difference between “limit values” and “target values” is presented in Box below:

Definitions for the purpose of air quality standards in the EU 


  • ‘limit value’ shall mean a level fixed on the basis of scientific knowledge, with the aim of avoiding, preventing or reducing harmful effects on human health and/or the environment as a whole, to be attained within a given period and not to be exceeded once attained;
  • ‘target value’ shall mean a level fixed with the aim of avoiding, preventing or reducing harmful effects on human health and/or the environment as a whole, to be attained where possible over a given period;
  • ‘long-term objective’ shall mean a level to be attained in the long term, save where not achievable through proportionate measures, with the aim of providing effective protection of human health and the environment;
  • ‘critical level’ shall mean a level fixed on the basis of scientific knowledge, above which direct adverse effects may occur on some receptors, such as trees, other plants or natural ecosystems but not on humans;
  • ‘alert threshold’ shall mean a level beyond which there is a risk to human health from brief exposure for the population as a whole and at which immediate steps are to be taken by the Member States;

Source: Directive 2008/50/EC

Air Quality Management

At the “macro-level”, the Directive (EU) 2016/2284 on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants reflects the UNECE CLRTAP Protocol to abate acidification, eutrophication and ground-level ozone (updated version of  Gothenburg Protocol) and lays down national emission ceilings for relevant pollutants. These national emission ceilings are to be complied with by 2020 and 2030. In addition, the Member States are required to prepare regular emission inventories and projections and to adopt National Emission Reduction Programs.

At the “micro-level”, the Directive 2010/75/EU on Industrial emissions (IPPC) represents the major regulatory tool for certain important stationary sources (large combustion plants, waste incinerators, installations using organic solvents, installations within the scope of former IPPC Directive). This directive gradually repeals and replaces 7 directives: Directive 96/61/EC concerning integrated pollution prevention and control ( Directive 2008/1/EC), Directive 1999/13/EC on the limitation of emissions of volatile organic compounds due to the use of organic solvents in certain activities and installations (as amended by the Directive 2004/42/EC), Directive 2000/76/EC on the incineration of waste, Directive 2001/80/EC on the limitation of emissions of certain pollutants into the air from large combustion plants and three directives concerning titanium dioxide industry (78/176/EEC, 82/883/EEC and 92/112/EEC). The main provisions are:

  • Emission limit values and technical requirements for operation of large combustion plants (dust, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide), waste incinerators and co-incineration plants, installations using organic solvents, titanium dioxide industry,
  • Rules of integrated permitting for large combustion plants, waste incinerators an co-incineration plants, installations using organic solvents, titanium dioxide production installations and other important industrial and agricultural installations,
  • Best available techniques (BAT), BAT reference documents (BREFs), BAT conclusions.

Besides the IPPC directives, the Directive 2004/42/EC on the limitation of emissions of volatile organic compounds due to use of organic solvents in certain paints and varnishes lays down maximum VOC limit values for paints, varnishes and refinishing products and provides for labelling and for placing on the market of such products.

Several directives provide for quality of fuels, in particular:

  • Directive 2009/30/EC as regards the specification of petrol, diesel and gas-oil and introducing a mechanism to monitor and reduce greenhouse gas emission, amending Directives 98/70/EC and 1999/32/EC and repealing Directive 93/12/EEC,

- Directive 2003/17/EC relating to the quality of petrol and diesel fuels.

Distribution of petrol is regulated by the Directive 94/63/EC on the control of VOC emissions resulting from the storage of petrol and its distribution from terminals to service stations and Directive 2009/126/EC on Stage II petrol vapour recovery during refuelling of motor vehicles at service stations.

In the case of mobile sources, the emission from both road vehicles and non-road mobile machinery are regulated by the following main directives:

  • Directive 2005/55/EC on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to the measures to be taken against the emission of gaseous and particulate pollutants from compression-ignition engines for use in vehicles, and the emission of gaseous pollutants from positive-ignition engines fuelled with natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas for use in vehicles,
  • Directive 2002/88/EC on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to measures against the emission of gaseous and particulate pollutants from internal combustion engines to be installed in non-road mobile machinery, amending Directive 97/68/EC.

In addition to the transposition of requirements laid down by the above mention directives, particular Member States adopt additional legal requirements to cover stationary sources which are not regulated at the Community level (mainly emission limit values for combustion plants below 50 MW and for industrial and agricultural installations). German Technical Instructions on Air Quality Control (TA Luft) is a leading example of such national “approach”.

Besides the directives which provide for air quality management explicitly, the implementation of certain directives in the field of climate change mitigation and energy efficiency may lead to considerable reduction of air pollution, in particular:

  • Directive 2010/31/EU on the energy performance of buildings,
  • Directive 2006/32/EC on energy end-use efficiency and energy services.

Finally, several “horizontal” legal acts are relevant from the point of view of air quality assessment and management, in particular:

  • Directive 85/337/EEC on the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment, as amended by the Directives 97/11/EC, 2003/35/EC and 2009/31/EC (EIA),
  • Directive 2007/2/EC establishing an infrastructure for Spatial information in the European Community (INSPIRE),
  • Directive 2004/35/EC on environmental liability with regards to the prevention and remedying of environmental damage,
  • Directive 2001/41/EC on the assessment of the effects of certain programs and plans on the environment (SEA),
  • Directive 2003/35/EC providing for public participation in respect of the drawing up of certain plans and programs relating to the environment,
  • Directive 2003/4/EC on public access to environmental information.
Institutional level

At the EU level, the main authority active in air quality assessment and management is the European Commission. DG Environment drafts strategic documents and legislation. Certain role is also played by DG Mobility and transport, DG Energy, DG Climate Action and DG Research and Innovations.

The European Environment Agency is the main supporting body which collects, processes and disseminates information and prepares state and outlook reports.

Instrumental level

The Community legislation provides for certain types of regulatory instruments, mostly of the command-and-control type, in particular:

  • air quality standards (see Box above),
  • emission limit values for certain pollutants and certain technologies (limited number of both),
  • generally binding technical requirements for the operation of certain stationary sources,
  • automatic emission control measurements by installation’ operators,
  • fuel quality standards,
  • emission requirements for road vehicles and non-road machinery,
  • standards for certain products.

Economic or market based instruments in the field of air quality management are not provided for at the Community level. 

As for voluntary instruments, EMAS (Eco-management and Audit Scheme) or eco-labelling  may be relevant to air quality management.

Operational level

The EU legislation provides especially for detailed rules of permitting and of enforcement without dealing with specific institutional arrangement. At the EU level, institutions active in implementation and enforcement are organized in the organization IMPEL (European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law), which can be joint by any national, regional or local authority which is competent for the implementation or enforcement of EU environmental law, e.g. ministries, regulators, agencies and inspectorates, provided that the authority is based in a Member State of the European Union, in an acceding or candidate country of the European Union or in an EEA country. Current list of IMPEL members presented bellow shows the diversity of institutional arrangements in particular Member States:

  • Ministry (e.g. Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain)
  • National inspectorate (e.g. Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia)
  • Agency (e.g. Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, UK)
  • Other (e.g. Belgium)
International level

Both EU as a whole and all Member states are parties to all relevant MEAs, mainly to the CLRTAP and all its protocols.

This project is funded by the European Union

And implemented by a consortium led by