Background

This page gives an overview of why Europe needs to tighten its legislation on air pollution from road vehicles, diesel machinery and sea-going ships. The German environmental and consumer associations NABU, BUND, VCD and Deutsche Umwelthilfe started the "soot free for the climate – no diesel without filters!" campaign in March 2009 to address the climatic effect of black carbon (soot). Meanwhile the campaign has grown Europe-wide. T&E supports this campaign to reduce black carbon emissions which absorb heat from the sun and damage fragile ecosystems such as the Arctic. In parallel to black carbon, diesel vehicles and machinery is one of the biggest emitters of NO2, which causes smog and many respiratory and other diseases; this is another important strand of work when it comes to air pollution from transport.

Why is air pollution so important?

An adult breathes between 17,000 and 30,000 times a day. When we breathe polluted air pollutants get into our lungs; they can enter the bloodstream and be carried to our internal organs such as the brain. This can cause severe health problems such as asthma, cardiovascular diseases and even cancer and reduces the quality and number of years of life.

Polluted air also causes eutrophication and acidification of our ecosystems, which result in the loss of agricultural productivity, irreversible damage to ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity. Last but not least, air pollution causes severe damage to our cultural heritage by degrading architectural masterpieces that are part of the European identity.

How is the air quality in Europe?

According to the European Environmental Agency (EEA) air pollution remains one of the major environmental problems in Europe, both in terms of human health and well-being. 100 million sick days and more than 400,000 premature deaths in the EU can be attributed to air pollution every year.

Between 2009 and 2011, up to 96% of urban citizens were exposed to fine particulate matter (2.5PM) concentrations above WHO guidelines and up to 98% were exposed to ozone (O3) levels above WHO guidelines.

Furthermore, many member states breach by far the nitrogen dioxides (NO2) emission limits set by the EU, mainly due to road-vehicle emissions. The Commission has recently started the infringement procedures against UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy and others due to persistent exceedances of the EU limits set for 2010. The European Environmental Agency estimates that around 71,000 Europeans die prematurely each year due to exposure to NO2, one of the most toxic NOx gases.

What is the economic cost of air pollution?

The health cost of air pollution is estimated at €766 billion per year in the EU. Road transport accounts for 18% of these costs. This estimation does not include costs linked to ecosystem damage, which are difficult to measure.

What are the air pollutants of main concern in Europe?

Pollutants of main concern for health in the EU are particulate matter (PM) and ground-level ozone (O3). Particulate matter has the most severe health effects, in particular the ultrafine matter which can penetrate deeper into our lungs and body. There is no safety concentration level. Any concentration in the air, as little as it might be, implies an adverse health effect such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer.

Excessive O3 in the air can cause breathing problems, asthma and lung diseases. It can lead to reduced crop yields, loss of biodiversity and degradation of physical cultural heritage. Furthermore, it causes global warming.

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) and, in particular, NO2, also have important negative health effects such as inflammation of the airways, bronchitis in asthmatic children and reduced lung function. It also causes acidification and eutrophication and is a precursor of O3 and PM.

Why is it so important to tackle pollutant emissions from road and diesel machine sources?

Our roads are crowded with motor vehicles. Vehicle exhaust gases contain a number of dangerous pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and PM, and unfortunately we are exposed to them every day. Exposure is particularly important if we live in a city or near a busy road or highway. Road transport is mainly responsible for NOx emissions from all land sources. It accounts for a third of total emissions in the EU-27.

Diesel machinery also represents an important health problem, in particular for workers using it. It accounts for 12% of NOx emissions from land sources.

What is Europe doing about air pollution?

Air pollution legislation includes the Ambient Air Quality directive (AAQD), the National Emissions Ceiling Directive (NECD) and sector-specific legislation.

The AAQD sets quality objectives for ambient air by establishing limit values for air pollutant concentrations. These limits apply to pollutants responsible for acidification, eutrophication and O3 formation.

The NECD establishes national ceilings for total emissions of four different pollutants. The NECD is based on the Gothenburg protocol, an international agreement with the very same objectives.

Sector-specific legislation includes emissions rules for passenger cars and light vans (light duty vehicles), trucks and buses (heavy duty vehicles), diesel machinery (also known as non-road machinery) and seagoing ships.

What should Europe do?

Europe must be ambitious and make sure that cars, vans, trucks, trains, planes, ships and construction machines are as clean as possible, not only during type approval, but also in real life. The newly developed Real-world Driving Emissions (RDE) test should be strengthened and used for all compliance in the future.

First and foremost, Europe needs a complete revamp of its testing system (type approval framework) to ensure independent and rigorous checks through vehicles’ lifecycles. T&E also wants the EU to strengthen its Euro standards for air pollutants (future Euro 7/VII) with the WHO guidelines in a technology-neutral manner which doesn’t discriminate between fuels. It should also tighten further and ensure compliance with its legislation on diesel machinery and seagoing ships.

Read more on how to improve the road vehicles, diesel machinery and sea-going ships legislation.