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Air Quality and Noise

Facts and figures

Policy actions and international co-operation have successfully reduced some air pollution significantly.

Still 420,000 people are estimated to have died prematurely due to air pollution in the EU in 2010.

The EU’s air quality standards lag behind those of other developed nations.

Of particular concern are particulate matter (PM)—a type of fine dust— ground-level ozone (O3) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

  • (A Clean Air Programme for Europe)
  • 65 per cent of Europeans living in major urban areas are exposed to high noise levels, and more than 20 per cent to night time noise levels at which adverse health effects occur frequently.
  • (General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020)


Starting in the 1970s, the EU developed a comprehensive—but so far only partly successful—legal framework for tackling air pollution. This has involved establishing minimum requirements regarding air quality and emissions of certain substances as well as imposing obligations on specific sources of air pollution such as industries and motor vehicles.

The EU is party to the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP),1 including its Protocols on, inter alia, Sulphur, Nitrogen Oxides (NOX), Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Eutrophication and Ground-level Ozone,2 as well as the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, and its Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.3 EU legal

  • 1 (Geneva, 13 November 1979) 1302 UNTS 217.
  • 2 For further information see (visited 4

May 2015).

3 (Vienna, 22 March 1985) 1513 UNTS 293 and (Montreal, 16 September 1987) 1522 UNTS 3, respectively.

EU Environmental Law and Policy. David Langlet and Said Mahmoudi. © David Langlet and Said Mahmoudi 2016. Published 2016 by Oxford University Press.

action in this area is thus partly aimed at implementing obligations incurred as a party to these instruments.

In 1996 a directive on ambient air quality assessment and management (‘the Air Quality Framework Directive’) was adopted.[1] [2] Limit values for particular substances, including ozone and particulate matter, were established through a number of subsequently adopted so-called daughter directives.5 After a number of amendments, these directives were merged into the new Directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe.[3] The other major instrument in this field, Directive 2001/81/EC, was adopted in 2001 to set national ceilings on the emissions of major air pollutants.[4]

Following a review of air policy which showed that significant negative impacts would persist even with effective implementation of existing legislation, a Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution was adopted in 2005.[5] It set out a number of actions, including revision of legislation and modernised monitoring and reporting schemes. In 2013 this was followed by the ‘Clean Air Policy Package’, which proposed new revisions and introduced new legislation.

Air quality is also significantly affected by legal acts not specifically targeting air pollution, most noticeably the IED discussed in section 8.2.

Noise is also a considerable health issue, particularly in densely populated areas, and has attracted EU regulatory action. It shares important characteristics with air pollution, for example the fact that substances or energy spread through the air. Noise, however, has a significantly more limited geographical distribution and is not subject to specific regulation under international law.

  • [1] Council Directive 96/62/EC on ambient air quality assessment and management [1996] OJ L 296/55.
  • [2] Council Directive 1999/30/EC relating to limit values for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, andoxides of nitrogen, particulate matter, and lead in ambient air [1999] OJ L 163/41; Directive 2000/69/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council relating to limit values for benzene and carbonmonoxide in ambient air [2000] OJ L 313/12; Directive 2002/3/EC of the European Parliament andof the Council relating to ozone in ambient air [2002] OJ L 67/14; Directive 2004/107/EC of theEuropean Parliament and of the Council relating to arsenic, cadmium, mercury, nickel and polycyclicaromatic hydrocarbons in ambient air [2005] OJ L 23/3.
  • [3] [2008] OJ L 152/1. 7 [2001] oJ L 309/22.
  • [4] 8 Communication from the Commission—Thematic Strategy on air pollution (21 September
  • [5] 2005) COM(2005) 446 final.
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