National governments must not use legal loopholes to hide failure on air quality

Woman using a mask, protecting herself from smog, Krakow, Poland

Nine EU Member States have asked the European Commission for permission to pollute above national limits set in EU law. Austria, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Finland, France, Ireland and Luxembourg have all asked for the limits that should have been met in 2015 to be raised so that they no longer appear to have breached them.

The European Union’s National Emission Ceilings Directive sets absolute caps for the amount of pollution allowed by any one country within a year. These caps are designed to work in tandem with European air quality rules, currently breached in 130 cities in 23 Member States, that should protect citizens by limiting the concentration of pollution of the air we breathe ‘on the street’. [1]

Governments can request exceptions to the national caps for previous years, called ‘inventory adjustments’, if certain circumstances apply. Such moves have been labelled as ‘get out of jail free cards’ because they allow Member States to avoid repercussions for breaching otherwise binding limits. [2]

The requests are criticised in a letter sent to Commissioner Vella today from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), ClientEarth, Transport & Environment, AirClim and the Health and Environment Alliance. [3]

The EEB is Europe’s largest network of environmental organizations with 141 members in over 30 countries.

All but one of the requests are made by governments claiming they were unaware of additional emissions from diesel vehicles, only Finland is not asking for an additional allowance for nitrogen oxides (NOx) linked to this source. Germany is singled out in the letter for particular criticism because the country issued the approvals for most of the vehicle models found to be exceeding their limits across Europe.

The letter also points out that it was known that road vehicles were responsible for additional emissions long before the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal broke. It argues that by asking for exceptions now, governments are simply trying to make up for their own policy failures on air quality:

“[National] authorities had much time at their disposal to require carmakers to comply, including mandatory recalls and withdrawal of approvals to take the polluting vehicles off the road. Had the authorities of Germany, France, Spain and Luxembourg… taken action in line with the Euro Standards Regulation, the inventory adjustments – as well as high NOx emissions in those countries – could have been avoided.”

Diesel engines are responsible for vehicle emissions of various pollutants including nitrogen oxides (NOx). These harmful gases contribute to the formation of smog and acid rain and have a damaging effect on human health and the environment, including being linked to a host of respiratory diseases.  

The largest single-point sources of NOx pollution in Europe are large industrial plants, particularly coal-fired power stations. [4] In April, Germany unsuccessfully tried to block tighter controls on coal-fired power stations due to the high NOx emissions of German brown coal (lignite) power plants. [5] Those new rules are now set to be published next week.


Notes to editors:

There are two crucial EU Directives on air pollution. The Ambient Air Quality Directive set limits for the concentration of certain pollutants in the air we breathe, in any given place. The National Emission Ceiling Directive sets caps, or ‘ceilings’, for the total amounts of certain pollutants to be emitted by each Member State from all land sources combined.

National Emission Ceilings Directive

An updated National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive was adopted in December 2016. Today’s letter concerns breaches of limits set in the previous NEC Directive.

The EEB report ‘Clearing the Air: A Critical Guide to the National Emission Ceilings Directive’, provides a detailed assessment of this Directive and calls on Member States and the European Commission to fully and effectively implement existing air pollution laws and take further steps to protect human health and the environment.

Ambient Air Quality Directive

The limits set in the Ambient Air Quality Directive are currently being exceeded in more than 130 cities in 23 out of the 28 Member States of the EU.

The European Commission published its roadmap for a fitness check of the Ambient Air Quality Directives this week. The document accepts that “significant compliance gaps remain” and that the World Health Organisation’s air quality guidelines are “in most instances, more stringent than EU air quality standards”.


[1] EEB Welcomes Commission action on illegal air, EEB Press Release, 15 February 2017, 

[2] The EU finally has new air pollution rules – now, let’s enforce them, EEB Senior Policy Officer Louise Duprez in Euracitve, 23 November 2016: 

[3] Joint NGO letter to Commissioner Vella, 28 July 2017

[4] Coal-fired power plants remain top industrial polluters in Europe, European Environment Agency Press Release, 7 July 2017

[5] Cleaner air the winner after Germany fails to block new EU rules, EEB Press Release, 28 April 2017

Joint letter to Commissioner Vella on NEC adjustment requests - 28 July 2017

Clearing the Air - A Critical Guide to the new NEC Directive

For more information:

Anton Lazarus - Communications Officer - Industrial Production, European Environmental Bureau

+32 2 790 88 18

National governments must not use legal loopholes to hide failure on air quality
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