Air quality

Air quality remains a major environmental problem. Europe needs well-enforced air pollution legislation for cars, vans, buses and trucks.

What's happening

Air pollution in Europe is a devastating health and environmental problem which affects everyone, but especially children, older people, and the poorest and most vulnerable in society. 

Despite improvements in air quality in recent years, air pollution remains the largest environmental health risk in Europe. Transport is one of the biggest sources of air pollution especially in cities where air quality is often much worse.

330,000 Premature deaths attributed air pollution per year in the EU

€67-80 bn Health costs attributable to air pollution from road transport

100 million Increase in highly polluting cars on Europe's roads by 2035 due to weak 'Euro 7'

Overview of the Ambient Air Quality Directive

The Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD) - an existing Directive dating back to 2008 - sets concentration limits for certain pollutants that are considered harmful. This includes Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and particles (PM10 and PM2.5) which are emitted from burning fuels in road transport, shipping and aviation. The Directive also sets instructions for member states on how to reduce pollution if legal limits are not complied with.

Although this legislation has contributed to improving air quality, concentrations of air pollution in Europe are still way above what is considered healthy by the World Health Organization (WHO). 89% of Europeans living in cities are considered to be breathing dangerous levels of NO2, and 97% of them breathing dangerous levels of PM2.5.

A revision of the AAQD and its pollution limits was long overdue.

The European Commission published its proposal for a revised AAQD in October 2022, and an agreement on the new law was finalised in 2024, with the new standards to come into force in 2030. The new AAQD reduces limits for NO2 by 50% to 20µg/m³, for PM10 by 50% to 20µg/m³ and PM2.5 by 60% to 10µg/m³. While this is an improvement, the limit values are still twice as high as the health-based recommendations of the WHO.

Failure to align the new EU limits with the WHO recommendations is estimated to amount to 114,000 additional premature deaths a year in European cities. This also means that cities have to do little to accelerate improvements in air quality. Because the Commission’s Impact Assessment didn't take all existing solutions to clean up the air in cities into account, it fails to show how low air pollution concentrations in cities can get. This is despite tools being available (such as zero-emission zones) which can cut pollution from transport enough to almost comply with the WHO recommended limits without taking any additional measure into account, even in the areas with the highest pollution concentrations in Europe.

Transport & Environment. (2023). Zero-emission zones can make a serious dent in harmful levels of air pollution

What is the health cost of air pollution?

In the EU almost 330,000 premature deaths can be attributed every year to air pollution as well as numerous illnesses including heart disease, cancer, asthma, lung disease and stroke.

Overall, the health costs attributable to air pollution caused by road transport have been estimated at €67 billion to €80 billion annually in the EU in a study for the European Public Health Alliance. More than 3/4 of these costs are linked to diesel cars.

What is the impact of road vehicles on air pollution?

Road transport - cars, vans, buses and trucks - are one of the main contributors to toxic air pollution and tailpipe pollution will remain a problem until well into the 2040s. Vehicles emit a range of harmful pollutants and are the biggest emitter of nitrogen oxides (NOx). Vehicles are also a large source of particle pollution (both PM10 and PM2,5), to which 253,000 premature deaths can be attributed each year. 

In Europe, 97% of the urban population was exposed to concentrations of fine particulate matter above World Health Organization guidelines. Exposure to nitrogen dioxide - of which road transport is the biggest polluter - led to 52,000 premature deaths. Aside from these pollutants, which account for the majority of health costs, vehicles also emit carbon monoxide, ammonia hydrocarbons and other toxic substances out of the tailpipe and particle pollution from brakes and tyres.

Overview of the Euro standards

EU pollution standards for cars and vans, and separate standards for trucks and buses, were first introduced more than thirty years ago in 1992 to tackle toxic air pollution coming from vehicle exhausts. Introducing these new standards, required for the first time the fitting of catalytic converters to reduce dangerous air pollution from the tailpipe. Since then, there have been five progressively more stringent ‘Euro’ standards requiring further reductions in pollution. The last, so-called ‘Euro 7’, standard will enter into force for road vehicles towards the end of the 2020’s.

The weak Euro 7 emission standards for road transport in the EU means that the most effective tools for reducing air pollution from road vehicles and improving air quality, are rapid Electrification of road transport and an overall shift towards public transport and active mobility.

Dieselgate, the lesson that Europe failed to learn

Over reliance on laboratory tests and failure to check actual on-road emissions lead to the ‘dieselgate’ scandal which was uncovered in 2015. Carmakers were found to be cheating on tests and cars were found to emit up to 18 times the legal NOx limits on the road. Several EU car makers, including PSA (Peugeot and Citroën) and Volkswagen, were implicated and the scandal resulted in a legacy of 51 million grossly polluting cars on EU roads. Steps taken by the EU afterwards to fix the regulatory errors which allowed dieselgate to happen include the introduction of on-road Real Driving Emissions (RDE) tests in 2017, in-use testing and fines. These finally forced car makers to comply with EU limits on the road for the first time in history. Despite these improvements there are still loopholes in the testing which allow cars to exceed the legal pollution limits, for instance when the weather is too hot or cold or when driving in hilly regions.

The Euro 7, Europe’s failed attempt to clean up road transport

The new Euro 7 standard, the last pollution standard for internal combustion engines before the transition to zero emission electric vehicles, was supposed to bring pollution from internal combustion engines (ICE) down to the lowest technically feasible levels. Thus ensuring that ICE’s are as polluting as little as possible before their phaseout.

Yet the agreement struck on the Euro 7 standard in December 2023 could not be further from this goal. For cars and vans there were no reductions in pollution limits or improvements in testing needed to close highly polluting loopholes found in Euro 6. This is despite technology being available to slash limits to a third of Euro 6’s even under tougher testing conditions. The lack of progress on cutting pollution from cars and vans is expected to result in greenwashing. No reduction in pollution is expected on the road but cars and vans will be labelled with the new Euro 7 standard. The Euro 7 standard is expected to enter into force for cars and vans in 2028.

For buses and trucks pollution limits were reduced, but are weak, far from the level that today’s pollution control technology can achieve. Only one improvement to truck and bus testing was agreed. Especially for trucks this means that there will be limited reduction in pollution, especially in cities where truck pollution is the worst. The Euro 7 standard is expected to enter into force for buses and trucks in 2030.

One of the only positive outcomes of Euro 7 were new requirements for limiting tyre and brake particle pollution, the details of which are yet to be set. Tyre pollution limits will apply from the 1st of April 2028 for cars, 1st of April 2030 for large vans, and 1st of April 2032 for buses and trucks. Brake particle limits are expected to apply from 2028-2030.

Air pollution in cities

Air quality in European cities is appalling and road transport is one of the biggest polluters. Cities are where the effects of air pollution are concentrated, and recent research found that a staggering 97% of Europe's population of all ages is exposed to dangerous levels of toxic air pollution Air pollution costs in European cities amount to €166 billion per year or an average of €1,276 per person. Challenging the dominance of the car in our urban space is central to ensuring healthier, safer cities that work for people.

To clean up the air we all breathe, cities have introduced low-emission zones (LEZs), ultra Low emission zones (ULEZ), and zero emission zones (ZEZ) where access for the most polluting vehicles is restricted.Other approaches include school streets and pedestrianisation where vehicle traffic is restricted. These approaches have a major impact on helping to bring down harmful levels of air pollution in urban areas, and have been shown to also improve air quality in areas outside the zone.

The impact of aviation on air pollution

It is well known that flying emits CO2, but few realise that aircrafts release many other pollutants into the atmosphere. In addition to CO2, every flight also releases hidden emissions such as soot, nitrous oxides (NOx), and sulphur dioxide (SO2).

The hidden emissions carry health implications, especially if you work in or live near an airport, or near busy flight routes. Studies available show emissions of soot by jet engines may be responsible for approximately 14,000 premature deaths each year globally. The same analysis estimates that hundreds of thousands of cases of high blood pressure, diabetes and dementia may be caused by soot from aviation.

We can’t continue to fly blind on the air pollution caused by burning kerosene, and let the aviation sector keep us in the dark about the full impact of flying. Regulation is needed to ensure the aviation industry implements straightforward solutions today to reduce this hidden pollution. 

The first solution is to improve jet fuel quality. The amount of soot released by every flight critically depends on the composition of jet fuels. By reducing the concentration of aromatics (ring-shaped carbon molecules) and sulphur in kerosene, emissions of soot can be  reduced. This is a cost-effective solution that has been done for cars and ships but not yet in planes. 

The increasing use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) will also help to lower pollution, as they have lower aromatics and therefore cause fewer emissions. Unfortunately, these fuels are not yet available at scale and they are very expensive. In the meantime, improving the quality of kerosene that is burned in plane engines should be a top priority.

The impact of shipping on air pollution

Most pollution from ships occurs on the open seas; out of sight, out of mind. However, this doesn’t mean ships aren’t bad for human health. Ports are incredibly polluting, which poses major problems for those living nearby.

Alongside carbon dioxide, large ships emit all sorts of toxic pollutants like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particles This is particularly problematic for cruise ships and ferries which often dock at busy urban areas, as well as for any passengers on board. For example, the 106 cruise ships that entered the port of Barcelona in 2023, were responsible for almost three times more sulphur oxides (SOx) than all of the city's 500,000 cars. 

But this problem isn’t unsolvable. Ships can be required to plug in to electricity at ports instead of running their engines. This would massively reduce the impact of cruises, for example, who need large amounts of power 24/7. Electric ships may not work for long-distance voyages on wide open oceans, but they can be a good solution for ferries which travel shorter distances and make regular port calls. For other ship types, such as containerships that cross oceans, a move towards green hydrogen-based fuels is a step in the right direction and ensure that shipping doesn’t fall for fake solutions such as fossil gas.