European Air Quality Laws

EU Thematic Strategy on Air Quality

The European Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution was published in 2005 and is currently under review by the European Commission. Environmental Protection UK is feeding into this process, including responding to consultations and joint lobbying with European environmental protection groups.

European Ambient Air Quality Directive and 4th AQ Daughter Directive

The 2008 Ambient Air Quality Directive (2008/50/EC) sets limits for key pollutants in the air we breathe outdoors. These legally binding limit values are for concentrations of major air pollutants that impact public health, such as particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). The directive also sets limit values for a range of other pollutants, such as ozone, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

The limits set in the Ambient Air Quality Directive are closely aligned to the UK air quality objectives, with similar metrics and levels.

The 4th air quality daughter directive (2004/107/EC) sets targets for levels in outdoor air of certain toxic heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Both directives are introduced into the UK through the Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010.

In addition to the limit values, the Ambient Air Quality Directive contains requirements on Member States to address exposure reduction for PM2.5. This is currently the responsibility of central government, and local authorities are not required to act on this, although many local measures to address PM10 would have an impact on PM2.5 too (as diesel vehicles are a major source of PM2.5 emissions).

The UK is currently in breach of the European Ambient Air Quality Directive for PM10 and NO2. The European Commission have the right to fine them for breaching this directive, a fine which could cost millions of pounds. The UK Government are also currently being challenged through the UK courts over this breach. Environmental Protection UK are pressurising the government for further national action, and additional support for local action, to improve air quality and protect human health.

National Emissions Ceiling Directive & Gothenburg Protocol

The EU Ceilings Directive sets obligations on the UK to achieve targets for the national releases of ammonia, nitrogen oxides, non-methane VOCs and sulphur dioxide by 2010, which the UK did, though the margin for nitrogen oxides was very tight. The Directive will be revised in due course to reflect the tighter national ceilings that were agreed for the Gothenburg Protocol in May 2012, as well as setting a target for PM2.5 particulate matter for the first time. The Government expects industry to use best available techniques (BAT) through the Environmental Permitting Regulations (EPR) to deliver a significant contribution to the further reductions that will be required in these pollutants.

The UNECE’s Gothenburg Protocol sets very similar national ceilings to the EU Ceilings Directive. It also contains annexes with emission limit values for specific processes or pieces of equipment that may be regulated by us. The UK signed up to the original Gothenburg Protocol but with a ‘reservation’ that the ELVs for new lean burn engines (such as landfill gas engines) will not be applied because it is not feasible to do so. The 2012 Gothenburg Protocol also has revised emission limit values annexes.

European Emission Standards

The Euro Standards set limits on the maximum emissions from new vehicles. There have been a series of increasingly stringent Euro standards for petrol and diesel cars (and vans) and heavy duty vehicles. Diesel cars, to date, have had to meet less stringent standards than petrol fuelled cars, but the two are converging in Euro 6.

Unfortunately the Euro standards have not been as effective as originally expected. The drive cycles that these vehicles are tested on are not representative of real world driving conditions, especially in urban areas. It is also easier to reduce emissions in high speed steady state driving, rather than slow or stop start urban driving, and the test cycle combined these states. Consequently the real world emissions reductions have not been as large as hoped. In some cases, emissions from higher (‘more stringent’) Euro standards have actually been higher than previous vehicles under urban driving conditions. There have recently been changes in the test cycle to try to overcome this “cycle-beating” by vehicle manufacturers.

Other Emission Sources

There are also a variety of other European laws and policies which address other sources of air pollution. These include Shipping and Non Road Mobile Machinery (NRMM), which addresses a wide range of construction and other off road vehicles.

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