Nearly half of European Union countries have exceeded one or more of the air pollution emission limits laid down in law.
Twelve of 27 member states exceeded one or more of the ceilings set by the EU National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive, according to official data for 2010 reported to the European Environment Agency (EEA).
And in some instances the limits were exceeded by significant amounts.
Spain was the only Member State to have exceeded three of its four emission ceilings under the NECD, followed by Germany with two faults. Finland exceeded its ammonia ceiling.
For the first time, preliminary data recently reported to the EEA by Member States allow a comparison with the legally binding emission limits for 2010 set in the EU NEC Directive.
The directive covers four main air pollutants: sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) and ammonia (NH3). These pollutants can cause respiratory problems, contribute to the acidification of soil and surface water, and damage vegetation.
The ceilings set in the NEC directive were designed to reduce such adverse impacts by an agreed amount.
"These pollutants contribute to health problems and can also lead to economic losses and environmental damage," EEA Executive Director Prof. Jacqueline McGlade said. "The EEA data shows that many EU Member States missed the 2010 limits, so these countries will need to make further efforts to help reduce air pollution in Europe."
The pollutant for which most exceedances were registered was NOx. Preliminary analysis shows eleven Member States exceeding their respective NOx ceilings (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden).
The road transport sector is one of the main contributory factors behind the large number of NOx exceedances, contributing approximately 40 % of total EU-27 NOx emissions. Reductions of NOx from this sector over the last two decades have not been as large as originally anticipated. This is partly because the sector has grown more than expected and partly because vehicle emission standards have not always delivered the anticipated level of NOx reductions.
A current review of EU air policy may lead to a revised NEC Directive containing stricter emission ceilings for 2020 in order to improve protection of health and the environment. For the first time, a ceiling for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) could be introduced.
In the absence of new legislation, however, the NEC Directive remains in force and requires countries to keep emissions below national ceilings in future years.