Clean air is essential to our health and to the environment. But since the industrial revolution, the quality of the air we breathe has deteriorated considerably - mainly as a result of human activities. Rising industrial and energy production, the burning of fossil fuels and the dramatic rise in traffic on our roads all contribute to air pollution in our towns and cities which, in turn, can lead to serious problems for both health and the environment.
Human toll for poor air quality is worse than for road traffic accidents, making it the number one environmental cause of premature death in the EU. It also impacts the quality of life due to asthma or respiratory problems. Air pollution causes lost working days, and high healthcare costs, with vulnerable groups such as children, asthmatics and the elderly the worst affected. It damages ecosystems through excess nitrogen pollution (eutrophication) and acid rain. The direct costs to society from air pollution, including damage to crops and buildings, amount to about €23 billion per year, and the external costs from health impacts alone are estimated at € 330-940 billion (3-9% of EU GDP).
For these reasons, air quality is an area in which the European Union has been very active. 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.
As the result, much progress has been made in tackling air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and benzene. However, as outlined above, and despite the progress made, air quality continues to cause serious and avoidable problems.
Drawing on the conclusions from the review, the Commission has adopted a Clean Air Policy Package in December 2013, consisting of A new Clean Air Programme for Europe with new air quality objectives for the period up to 2030, a revised National Emission Ceilings Directive with stricter national emission ceilings for the six main pollutants, and a proposal for a new Directive to reduce pollution from medium-sized combustion installations.