Air pollution statistics

From Statistics Explained

Data from November 2012. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database.

This article highlights the emission levels of air pollutants in the European Union (EU). The air pollutants comprise those generally reported under the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) and include: sulphur oxides (SOx), ammonia (NH3), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) conducive to acidification, eutrophication or ozone formation. Greenhouse gas emissions, however, are not analysed here, but in a specific article.

Air pollution caused by human activities, including industrial and energy production, the burning of fossil fuels and increased use of certain types of transport, causes serious health problems for hundreds of thousands of Europeans every year. Environmental damage such as acidification, eutrophication, tropospheric (ground-level) ozone and reduced air quality, especially in urban areas, can be a local as well as a transboundary problem as air pollutants are transported in the atmosphere and harm human health and the environment elsewhere.

Figure 1: Emissions of air pollutants, EU-27, 1990-2010, Index 1990=100 Source: EEA, also available at Eurostat (env_air_emis)
Table 1: Emissions of air pollutants by country, in tonnes, 2010 Source: EEA, also available at Eurostat (env_air_emis)
Table 2: Emissions of air pollutants per capita, in kg, 2010 Source: for emissions EEA, also available at Eurostat (env_air_emis), for population Eurostat (tps00001)
Figure 2: Emissions of air pollutants by source sector, EU-27, 2010 Source: EEA, also available at Eurostat (env_air_emis)

Main statistical findings

From 1990 to 2010 the EU-27 recorded reductions in all of the pollutants considered in this article (see Figure 1). The biggest fall was reported for SOx which in 2010 stood at only one fifth of its 1990 levels (effectively a decrease of 81.6 %), followed by NMVOCs which declined by more than a half. Nitrous oxides (NOx) stood at 53.4 % their 1990 levels (a decrease of roughly 47 %); while the smallest decrease was reported for ammonia (NH3), emissions of which fell only by 28.5 % by 2010.

The emissions of all five pollutants decreased more rapidly over the first half of the period - from 1990 to 1999. Over the last decade (2000-2009) for which data are available, the annual rate of reduction was lower; in other words, emissions were decreasing more slowly, for some pollutants such as sulphur oxides and ammonia (SOx and NH3) even half as fast.

In 2010 emissions of ammonia (NH3) in the EU-27 stood at 3 590 605 tonnes, NMVOCs at 7 412 004 tonnes, nitrogen oxides (NOx) at 9 162 264 tonnes and sulphur oxides (SOx) at 4 574 478 tonnes (see Table 1). The biggest emitters of ammonia in 2010 in the EU-27 were France with 18.0 % of the EU total or 645 142 tonnes, followed by Germany with 15.3 % and Italy with 10.6 %. The NMVOC emissions were highest in Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom - each with double-digit shares of the EU total. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) were emitted the most in Germany (14.4 % of the EU total), the United Kingdom (12.1 %), France (11.8 %), Spain (10.6 %) and Italy (10.5 %).  Regarding sulphur oxides (SOx), unlike the other pollutants, the biggest emitter was a country from Eastern Europe: Poland with 21.3 % of the EU total, followed by Spain with 10.6 % and Germany with 9.8 %.

On a per capita basis, the picture looks different (see Table 2). Since these air pollutants are pertinent to local human health (in particular their high concentrations in urban areas), notwithstanding their transboundary effects, it is informative to consider them on a per capita basis as well. In 2010, the EU-27 average was 7.2 kg per person for ammonia (NH3), 14.8 kg for NMVOCs, 18.3 kg for nitrous oxides (NOx) and 9.1 kg for sulphur oxides (SOx). When looking closer at countries, for ammonia (NH3) the highest emissions were reported for Ireland 23.8 kg per capita or more than three times the EU average. The second highest was Denmark with 13.5 kg per capita, followed by France with 10.0 kg. Regarding NMVOCs, the most emissions per capita were recorded for Latvia with 28.9 kg or almost twice the EU average, followed by Estonia with 28.5 kg per capita and Finland with 21.7 kg in the context of the EU-27 countries (Norway, a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) recorded 28.8 kg per capita). When it comes to nitrous oxides (NOx), 15 countries were above the EU average of 18.3 kg, with Luxembourg at the top emitting five times as much or 92.0 kg per person, followed by Finland with 31.2 kg and Greece with 28.4 kg. The disproportionate emissions from Luxembourg could be due to the low taxes on fuel and the consequent demand in that country. Two EFTA countries recorded substantial emissions per capita with 68 kg for Iceland and 37.9 kg for Norway. Sulphur oxides (SOx) registered the highest per capita emissions in Estonia with 61.1 kg, which is almost seven times the EU average; followed by Bulgaria with 51.2 kg, Cyprus with 27.0 kg and Poland with 25.5 kg.

The source sectors responsible for emissions also differed across the specific air pollutants (see Figure 2). Ammonia (NH3) emissions came overwhelmingly from agriculture (93.7 % of the EU total in 2010). NMVOCs, such as for example, benzene, ethanol, formaldehyde and acetone, were mostly emitted from solvent and product use (42.9 %), activities in the commercial, institutional and households sector (16.5 %) and road transport (15.9 %.) The biggest source of nitrous oxides (NOx) emissions was road transport with 41.6 % of the total in 2010, followed by energy production and distribution with 20.1 %, while the sectors of commercial, institutional and households had a share of 13.9 % and energy use in industry had 13.5 %. Finally, sulphur oxides (SOx) resulted mainly from activities in energy production and distribution (58.7 %), energy use in industry (19.8 %) and commercial, institutional and households (12.8 %).

Data sources and availability

Data on air pollution is officially reported under the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution – CLRTAP – to the EMEP Programme (Co-operative Programme for Monitoring and Evaluation of the Long-range Transmission of Air pollutants in Europe). The air pollutants that are reported are ammonia (NH3), sulphur oxides (SO2 and SO3 as SOx), nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2 as NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), carbon monoxide (CO), and particulate matter (PM10, particles defined as having aerodynamic diameter of 10 µm or less). Where PM10 data are not reported by countries to EMEP/CLRTAP, emission estimates can be obtained from the Regional Air Pollution Information and Simulation (RAINS) model.

Eurostat, in close partnership with the European Environment Agency and the Joint Research Centre (JRC), provides statistics, indicators and meta-information on environmental pressures and the state of the environment to support the implementation and monitoring of the sixth Environment Action Programme. This is done through ten topic-specific data centres: the EEA is responsible for the European topic centre on air and climate change. Thus, the EEA is responsible for compiling the annual European Union emission inventory report to the UNECE LRTAP Convention. The European pollutant release and transfer register (E-PRTR) provides public access to emissions of key air pollutants in the EU, and a near to real-time ozone information system is also available on the EEA website.

The EEA and its European Topic Centre on Air and Climate Change compile data on emissions of air pollutants and on air quality for the Member States and the candidate countries. A near to real-time ozone information system is available on the EEA website.


Since the early 1970s, the EU has been working to improve air quality by controlling emissions of harmful substances into the atmosphere, improving fuel quality, and by integrating environmental protection requirements into the transport and energy sectors. The EU acts at many levels: at an international level in order to reduce cross-border pollution, through work with national/regional authorities and NGOs, to work with individual industrial sectors, as well as providing funding to help support research.

Environment and health is one of four target areas within the Sixth Environment Action Programme (sixth EAP). The sixth EAP aims to achieve levels of air quality that do not give rise to unacceptable impacts on, and risks to, human health and the environment. Most of the legislation establishes health-based standards (limits) for pollutants, with action required if levels exceed these limits. The four air pollutants responsible for acidification, eutrophication and ground-level ozone pollution (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and ammonia) are regulated at EU level by Directive 2001/81/EC on National Emission Ceilings for certain pollutants (NEC Directive) sets upper limits for each Member State for the total emissions in 2010. Under the Directive, Member States have to report on their levels of emissions in inventories submitted to the European Environment Agency (EEA) in order to monitor progress and verify compliance. Internationally, the emissions of acidifying substances that result in acid rain are to a large extent regulated by the Gothenburg Protocol under the UNECE Convention on long-range transboundary air pollution (CLRTAP), signed in 1979.

Sources of acidifying substances come from agriculture (ammonia), from the combustion of fuels by industry and road traffic (nitrogen oxides) and the combustion of fuels and metal production (sulphur dioxide). Emissions of sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides react with the water vapour in the atmosphere to form different acids that later fall on the ground in the form of acid rain, damaging soils, freshwaters, vegetation as well as steel bridges and buildings. All of these gases may be transported over long distances so the emissions from one country may be transported by the winds and be deposited in other countries. For this reason acidification is considered a regional problem rather than a global problem since the effects are more localised, rather than influencing global climate as do greenhouse gases.

Although ozone (O3) is present in small concentrations throughout the atmosphere, most ozone (about 90 %) exists in the stratosphere, a layer between 10 and 50 km above the surface of the earth. This ozone layer performs the essential task of filtering out most of the sun’s biologically harmful ultraviolet (UV-B) radiation. At ground level (i.e. in the troposphere), ozone is harmful. It is formed by atmospheric pollutants and is often associated with human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels and biomass, traffic emissions, or the use of aerosols, while natural events, such as volcanic eruptions, can also have an impact. Areas with heavy traffic are particularly susceptible to the formation of ground-level ozone; this problem is exacerbated by particular climatic conditions. Ground-level ozone is a secondary pollutant caused by nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds reacting in sunlight; it harms human health, nature and biological diversity, crops and materials. People living in urban areas are therefore most at risk from ground level ozone. Higher concentrations of ground level ozone can have harmful effects on the respiratory tract, cause breathing difficulties, damage lungs, and trigger asthma attacks.

Indeed, human health is also at risk from high concentrations of particles, particularly those smaller than 10 µm, which penetrate deeply into the lungs, increasing the death rate in members of the population suffering from heart and lung diseases. Particles smaller than 2.5 µm are mostly soot, especially wood smoke and diesel-engine exhaust. These can persist in the air for long periods and can be transported over long distances. Coarser particles (soil and mineral ash) originate mainly from mechanical processes such as mining, quarrying and other industrial processes, as well as wear and tear of tyres and brakes in road traffic.

See also

Further Eurostat information


Main tables

Emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants (env_air)
Greenhouse gas emissions (tsdcc100)
Greenhouse gas emissions by sector (tsdcc210)
Urban population exposure to air pollution by particulate matter (tsdph370)
Urban population exposure to air pollution by ozone (tsdph380)


Emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants (env_air)
Air pollution (source: EEA) (env_air_emis)

Other information

  • Framework Directive 96/62/EC of 27 September 1996 on ambient air quality assessment and management
  • Directive 1999/30/EC of 22 April 1999 relating to limit values for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter and lead in ambient air of 27 September 1996 on ambient air quality assessment and management
  • Directive 2001/81/EC of 23 October 2001 on national emission ceilings for certain atmospheric pollutants (NEC Directive)
  • Directive 2002/3/EC of 12 February 2002 relating to ozone in ambient air
  • Decision 2004/224/ of 20 February 2004 laying down arrangements for the submission of information on plans or programmes required under Council Directive 96/62/EC
  • Directive 2004/42/EC of 21 April 2004 on the limitation of emissions of volatile organic compounds due to the use of organic solvents in certain paints and varnishes and vehicle refinishing products and amending Directive 1999/13/EC
  • Directive 2008/50/EC of 21 May 2008 on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe

External links