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Cleaner air for all: With many Europeans experiencing high air pollution in their cities, how can energy policy and regulation apply to electricity generation, heat production and transport in order to improve air quality?

Air pollution is one of the main factors contributing to climate change and global warming and it can be considered today as one of the main challenges of our century. Energy and heat production, industry, agriculture, household heating or transport - the consequences of air pollution are huge with two thirds of ecosystems affected. Moreover, air pollution has huge consequences for human health and economy by being responsible for more than 7 millions of deaths per year around the world and more than 400 000 in the EU. The direct economic cost is estimated near to €23.8 billions according the the European Commission. It is because of these risks and cost thats the EU, in hopes of international cooperation, has implemented its policy to make the air cleaner for all in Europe by implementing some rules, steps, and objectives to achieve concerning the air quality, especially concerning the air pollutants emissions. These rules, of which some have been in effect for years, have been regrouped into the Clean air Package 2013.

Air pollution : global problem

The state of the air pollution in Europe

As a lot of places in the world, the EU territory has also been affected by high air pollution [1] for many decades. The “Great Smog” that London knew in 1952 shows that the high air pollution is not a recent problem in Europe and time and research have highlighted the responsibility and impact of air pollution on society. Indeed, as shown by the European Environment Agency (EEA)[2] in its report “Air quality in Europe - 2016 report”[3], air pollution has direct and indirect consequences for society and in different areas: human health, environment, culture and economics. In many ways, air pollution has a present cost which can have irreversible consequences for the future of our planet: Human health consequences: As the EEA and the European Commission have highlighted, air pollution damages human health and quality of life. Directly responsible for the illnesses (such as asthma, heart diseases, strokes, and bronchitis) of 6.5 billion people per year across the EU, air pollution is also responsible for more than 400 000 premature deaths per year in the EU and more than 7 million around the world. Additionally the health consequences of air pollution are also very costly, with an amount evaluated near €4 billion. Environmental consequences: Air pollution has a direct and important impact on ecosystems and on climate change, causing acidification, eutrophication, crop damage, disturbing the vegetation growth, and affecting wildlife. Air pollutant emissions have a big impact on climate change and global warming, and are responsible for a main part of the damage to our ecosystem Economic consequences: The switch to a carbon-free economic area and the costs for health care systems, which are increased by diseases caused by air pollution, are the two big challenges for the European economy. The cost for the economy is in term of €15 billion of lost work days[4], according to the EEA.

The sources of the air pollution

While the emissions of pollutants can be natural, such as volcanoes or vegetation emissions, most of the air pollution can be explained by human activities such as transport, energy and heat production (petrol, electricity), agriculture, and households heating. All of these activities are dependent on energy, which is mostly produced using the following fossil fuels:

Fuels used by the EU in 2013, Ten priorities for Europe, European Commissions
  • Oil,
  • Coal,
  • Gas,
  • Nuclear fuel

Being the world’s highest energy source importer - 53% of its energy production for a cost of €400 billion[5], the European Commission has highlighted in its Ten priorities for Europe booklet published in 2015 the dependence of the Union on the fossil fuels which represent 88% of the generation of energy and heat in 2013. This booklet also highlights the little use of the renewable energies which, even if they increase, represent only 12% in 2013[5].

The use of the fossil fuels is not without consequences. Indeed, their use is responsible for the emissions of some air pollutants causing air pollution, climate change and the connected health problems. As the commission highlights, “Around 90 % of city dwellers in Europe are exposed to pollutants at concentrations higher than the air quality levels deemed harmful to health”[6]. These air pollutants are known and defined and are among the:
File:Air pollutants.png
Fuels used by the EU in 2013, Ten priorities for Europe, European Commissions
  • Particulate matter (PM)
  • Sulphure Dioxyde (SO2)
  • 7itrogen (di)oxyde
  • Ammonia
  • Volatile organic compounds
  • Methan

The EU has been attempting to reduce these air pollutants in the atmosphere and improving the air quality for a couple of decades. It has taken 1990 as a year of reference and has fixed some strict objectives for air pollutant emissions. The implementation of some legislation and regulations seems to have succeeded on the objective to initiate a wave of reducing these emissions, like shown in chart 2.

Air pollutant emissions in EU-28, Index 1990 = 100, Air pollutant emission in EU-28, European Commision - Europa,,_EU-28,_1990-2014,_Index_1990%3D100.png

But as the EEA highlights, the issue of air pollution is more complex than people can think because of the fact that air pollution does not know borders. That is why the EEA recalls on its website that “there is not always a clear linear relationship between decreasing emissions and the concentrations of air pollutants observed in the air”[6]. This blurring correlation between a decrease in emissions and the concentrations of air pollutants is due to the fact that air pollution cannot be stopped by borders and moves from one country to another. That is why a country can see a decrease of its emission while remaining with a high concentration of air pollutants.

Fighting the air pollution : going forward or not ?

While the debate about climate change is accepted by a majority of the population, a main debate still exists about the whether or not to fight climate change and air pollution. This debate turns around the consequences of climate change and air pollution on health, economy and ecosystems, conclusions which are challenged by the climato-sceptics. The fears of the climato-sceptics are especially based on the ways that our way of life and our economy can be affected by the regulations. Climato-sceptics consider that humans, their activities and their well being come before the climate change fight. That is why the fight against air pollutants is difficult to move forward: some countries or parts of society do not “play the game” of engaging with the process of decarbonisation by considering that industry, employment and business are more important than a healthy society. Moreover the debate about the change of energy and heat sources to move from fossil fuels to renewable energies can be the marker that, even if climato-sceptics are not the major party of the society, the change to a carbon-free society is difficult to be integrated by all the parties to have a fast change on these issues. The decision taken on June 1st 2017 by the President Trump to withdraw the United States of America from the 2015 Paris Agreements can been seen as the main example of these climato-sceptic arguments. It shows that of a part of the world society does not want to invest in the air pollution fight. Faced with this decision, the EU and many Member States’ Heads of State or Government have reaffirmed the necessity of this agreement.

The air pollution: a daily fight

The responsibility of the the action?

Even if the some decisions have been taken by the public institutions to reduce air pollution, the problem of pollution still exists and the limits of legislation can be seen by the fact that some rules are not respected and some part of the society does not take part enough in the fight against air pollution. That was the case with Volkswagen’s Dieselgate affair[7] in 2015, when it was revealed that Volkswagen forged data about their cars’ motors concerning their pollutant emissions. This is why the question of the responsibility of different actors in the fight against air pollution needs to be asked. Since a number of actors, such as industries, households, and energy and transport companies, are involved in the emission of air pollutants, it needs to be determined who has to take an active role in the reduction of the air pollution. Should the pollution producers - households, energy and transport companies, industries, companies and farmers - be the people who have to change their way of life and way of production? Should the public institutions have to act by regulations and legislation? Is a combination between public and private sectors’ actions the best way to fight air pollution? Since each party is partly responsible for the air pollution emission, each of needs to take responsibility for the fight against it. But in some cases, the responsibility for the pollution is hard to define. Thus, we can ask ourselves what the responsibility of each party in the fight against the air pollution is.

  • Public Institutions: Since environment and public health fall within the shared competences between the EU and the Member States, the responsibility of action is also shared between the two levels. But the great disparity between Member States when it comes to their willingness to act make the implementation of a good and efficient common policy difficult. This is why, for a couple of years, the EU has decided to take the lead and implement legislation based on strict objectives to reduce air pollution.
  • Energy and heat producers: While the generation of energy and heat is still mainly dependent on fossil fuels, a change to a free-carbon generation can also have a direct impact on air quality. That is why the investments in renewable energies is welcomed to ensure a reduction of pollutant emissions due to fossil fuels and to ensure a better and eco-friendly heat and energy production.
  • Industrial sector: Industry is one of the main sources for air pollution as a lot of energy is used for production processes. The responsibility this sector has is to implement a crucial change in the production process to become greener, by reducing its emissions and becoming energy efficient.
  • Agricultural sector: Being highly dependent on pesticides, the agricultural sector has a huge responsibility for air pollution as it emits a high amount of air pollutants. A change of farming methods is required to actively reduce emissions.
  • Transport sector: The high dependency on fossil fuels makes it one of the main origins of pollution. Investments in more eco-friendly ways of transportation can be one of the main solutions, even if some car producers seem resistant to support this possibility.
  • Citizens and households: Citizens and households can take direct actions affecting air pollutant emissions. Transport, heat and energy consumption are the main causes of household pollution. That is why a change in daily habits can have a consequent impact on air pollution.

Some possibilities for reducing air pollution

The shared responsibility between the different actors in their daily activities open a wide range of possible actions which can be implemented from the most theoretical to the most practical. Moreover better coherence and cooperation between all the actors can make these action more efficient to ensure a sustainable reduction of air pollutant emissions. Possible actions include:

  • Public action: Each level of public institutions, whether on an EU-, Member State, or local level, can pool their efforts of legislation and investments in the same direction to create incentives for improving the air quality and to make a greener society.
  • Making the cities greener: The development and growth of many cities and the necessity to offer space to an increasing amount of people has decreased presence of vegetation in the cities. This has quite the effect on the quality of life and has partly contributed to the increase of the level of air pollution. That is why, with the objective to reduce air pollution, some cities have set up plans to increase the space for vegetation in the cities.
  • A new transport policy: Transport is one of the main sources of pollution, because cars, planes and buses are highly dependent on fossil fuels. The past five decades have seen a fast development in aircraft travel and the use of cars in cities. A change of transport possibilities is necessary to reduce emissions. The high correlation between the air pollution and transport has started the development of less carbon-dependent transport alternatives. To ensure this change, some cities have developed transport policies to incentivise their citizens to adopt more eco-friendly transport habits in cities like biking, public transport or walking.
  • A greener way of life: More than transport, people can have a real impact by changing their way of life by considering their energy, heat and waste management in their daily actions. Consumption can also be a way of change to move forward to a greener economy.

The actions of the EU against air pollution

The objectives expected of the energy policy

Since the 1970’s, the EU is involved in the climate change fight by trying to implement a common energy policy which sets some common objectives to reduce the impacts of air pollution. Into these common policies, a long term vision has been adopted to implement long-term strategies with common objectives. The strategies have as an aim to guide the practical measures and investments of the EU. Three long term strategies[8] -Targets for 2020, Targets for 2030, and Targets for 2050- have been implemented to fight climate change. These strategies play an important part in the fight against air pollution. For each target, the EU have set up objectives to improve air quality:

  • Targets for 2020

- “Reducing greenhouse gases by at least 20% compared to 1990 levels

- 20% of energy from renewable sources

- 20% energy efficiency improvement”[8]

  • Targets for 2030

- “40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions

- At least 27% EU energy from renewables

- Increase energy efficiency by 27-30%

- 15% electricity interconnection (i.e. 15% of electricity generated in the EU can be transported to other EU countries)”[8]

  • Targets for 2050

- “An 80-95% cut in greenhouse gases compared with 1990 levels.”[8]

To complete these strategies, the EU implemented the Clean air Package 2013, which also sets concrete objectives concerning air pollution and its consequences. These objectives are: * “avoid 58 000 premature deaths

  • save 123 000km2 of ecosystems from nitrogen pollution
  • save 56 000km2 of protected Natura 2000 areas
  • save 19 000km2 of forest ecosystems from acidification”[9]

Keeping in mind that air pollution has no borders and is moving all around the planet, and being aware of the fact that this is not an issue that will resolve itself, the EU has decided to implement its policy in cooperation with the rest of the world. That is why the EU has decided to follow in its objectives the request of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in terms of air pollutants emissions, but also to be present in the global negotiations about climate change. That is the case each year during the Conference of the Parties (COP)[10] of the United Nations. The EU was also very active in the negotiations of the 2015 Paris Accord during the COP 21.

The measures taken by the EU

Because Energy, Health and Environment are shared competences and to ensure the good run of the objectives dictated by the European legislation and strategies, the EU has implemented different measures and regulations.

  • The Energy Union and climate:[11] Implemented in 2015, the Energy Union and climate is the result of a long history of European energy policies and of proposals from the united energy sector. The objective of the Union is to ensure a secure and sustainable energy by a common and interconnected market and common policies and investments. This Energy Union is based on five main priorities:
  1. “Energy security, solidarity and trust
  2. A fully integrated European energy market
  3. Energy efficiency
  4. Climate change - Decarbonising the economy
  5. Research, innovation and competitiveness.”[11]

This Union is a new step in the involvement of the EU in the fight against climate change and air pollution, with the main aim to increase coherence and efficiency. It gives new powers to the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS)[12] by the ratification of the 2015 Paris Agreement and by establishing their targets for the Energy policy (Target 2020, Targets 2030 Target 2050).

  • The EU Emissions Trading System (ETS)[12]: The EU Emissions Trading System is a Cap and Trade system implemented at the European level. Based on the polluter pays principle, the main objective of this system is to reduce greenhouse gasses and air pollutant emissions by implementing a system of yearly emissions quotas allocated for each company (the cap). On a common market based on the law of supply and demand, these quotas can be exchanged between companies (trade system) according to their needs. To ensure a the successful achievement of the objectives to reduce the emissions, the system includes more and more countries and companies each year.
  • The Clean air package 2013: In line with the different regulations set up concerning the environment and air pollution, this package has been implemented to plan huge investments at regional, national and international levels with the aim to improve air quality. The cost of this Clean air package has been estimated by the European Commission to an average of €2.2 billion a year between between 2014 and 2030, and a global estimated amount of investments of € 35.2 billion in the whole period.

The European Commission estimated an important return on investment near a ratio of 20 times of the cost. Either an order of €3.3 billion a year on direct costs (energy and heat generation, less dependency on fossil fuels, health costs) and on the indirect costs (health improvement) which can range from €4 to €140 billion. Moreover, the benefits will also concern the exposure of the EU territory and citizens to air pollutants and their risks. Thus, the aim is to decrease the exposure to eutrophication from 62% of the EU area to 44% of the area, a decrease of 29% of the area exposed to the eutrophication. Concerning the exposure to acidification, a decrease of 79,36% of the EU area exposed to acidification - from 110.000 km² to 27.500 km² - has been estimated.Thus the Clean air package’s aim is to have a common mass investment to ensure the best reduction of risks and costs.


  1. [1], Air quality in Europe : real time air quality index,
  2. [2], European Environment Agency,
  3. [3], Air quality in Europe - 2016 report,
  4. [4], Air quality in EUrope - 2016 report, page 12,
  5. 5.0 5.1 [5], Ten priorities for Europe,- European Commission,
  6. 6.0 6.1 [6], Air pollution, European Environement Agency
  7. [7], Volkswagen emission scandal: What ‘diesel-gate’ means for VK owners, The Independent, 10/01/2015, .
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 [8], Energy, European Union (,
  9. [9], The Clean Air package : Improving Europe’s air quality, European Council/Council of the European Union .
  10. [10], Paris Conference of Parties, 2015.
  11. 11.0 11.1 [11], The Energy Union and Climate, European Commission.
  12. 12.0 12.1 [12], The European Trading System (ETS), European Commission,

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