Managing Air Quality Across Europe

air quality monitoring

For the majority of European countries, air quality continues to be a problem, causing damage to human health and to the environment. Reflecting on this issue, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has now released an updated briefing ( that details the air quality plans of 21 countries where pollution limits have been exceeded, including Norway and the UK. In the briefing, the EEA also identifies the source of these pollutants and discusses case studies where the quality of air has been improved in seven European locations through active measures.

Analysing data from extensive environmental monitoring, the key findings containing in the briefing are as follows:

● During the period from 2014 to 2020, a total of 944 air quality plans were drawn up and reported to the EEA in response to local failures to meet air quality standards.

● Plans generally aimed to protect public health by focusing on reducing coarse particulates (PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

● In 64 percent of cases, exceedances were due to road traffic, with NO2 being the main cause.

● In 14 percent of cases, exceedances were due to domestic heating, with PM10 being the main cause.

● Two-thirds of remedial measures tended to focus on transport, with just 12 percent focusing on the energy usage associated with domestic heating.

● Increasing public awareness and gaining support for measures is vital to improving air quality. This is something to which the Sonitus Systems team can attest, having worked with Dublin City Council over the past decade to engage residents and visitors to the city on air quality and noise issues locally: 

European air quality plans

The allowable limits of pollutants in Europe, as set by the EU, are detailed in the Ambient Air Quality Directives ( Should a city, town, or region exceed these values, member states are then required to produce an air quality plan to bring the levels of these pollutants to a safe level, and deliver this plan to the EEA.

Throughout the period 2014 to 2020, 21 member states reported one or more air quality plans to the EEA.

These plans must detail short term plans to improve the ambient air quality in the areas where limits are exceeded. They must also include details about the source of the emissions.

Over this same period, 944 plans were reported, with 59 percent reported as implemented, 15 percent were still in the first year of implementation, and 17 percent were as yet under revision. The EEA’s own finding is that while most plans are now being executed, there is a significant number that may prove insufficient and may require “further attention“.

In addition to most air quality plans focusing on NO2 and PM10, the EEA discovered that:

● 65 percent of the exceedances were urban.

● 21 percent of the exceedances were rural.

● Just 5 percent of exceedances reported other pollutants, including PM2.5, Ozone (O3), nickel, lead, cadmium, sulfur dioxide, and benzene.

● Some plans had as their aim the protection of vegetation, with Spain, France, and Italy drafting plans to reduce O3, ammonia, and nitrogen oxides.

Road traffic and domestic heating mostly to blame

As mentioned above, in the course of reporting to the EEA, member states are required to detail the source of the pollutants causing air quality limits to be exceeded. This information is gleaned through environmental monitoring.

Overall, road traffic was the main cause of exceedances, while also being the principal cause of NO2. The EEA discovered that 64 percent of all reported exceedances could be traced to dense urban traffic and major road proximity. For Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the UK, road traffic comprised the major source of exceedances. In Germany and France, road traffic made up 95 percent and 73 percent of exceedances, respectively.

Interestingly, this pattern was not found across the whole of Europe, with road traffic causing only 8 percent of exceedances in Poland, 15 percent in Bulgaria, and 20 percent in Lithuania.

Aside from road traffic, 14 percent of exceedances were linked to domestic heating and the key driver of coarse PM10 in ambient air. Slovenia was the most affected by this source of emissions, with domestic heating causing 57 percent of exceedances, followed by Slovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania.

Elsewhere, local industry was found to be a significant factor in poor air quality standards, with Belgium finding 50 percent of its exceedances down to commercial activities.

Most plans aim to curb road traffic

Upon detecting an exceedance to air quality limits, member states must draft plans to remedy the situation and report them to the EEA, in accordance with the Ambient Air Quality Directives, or national air pollution control programmes. These programmes need to be updated at least every 4 years and do so with regard to the National Emission Reduction Commitments Directive (

Most plans (62 percent) focused on reducing NO2, caused by road traffic, with a further 26 percent aimed to reduce PM10 and PM2.5. To support the general aim of increasing the usage of public transport, measures include speed limits, parking space management, the introduction of low-emission zones, and changes in transportation methods.

Some 19 percent of other plans focused on public information and education through media usage instead. A further 14 percent of member state plans were geared towards the encouraged use of low-emission fuels in stationary sources.

Raising awareness is vital

One of the key findings of the EEA – and echoed by the experiences of the Sonitus Systems team –  is that gaining public support for air pollution measures is a key component in their successful implementation. Without public awareness, plans can face backlash and create opposition to policies. This has been seen throughout Europe, with public opposition mostly towards restricted road traffic and domestic fuel combustion, though there are some promising cases of citizen involvement with air quality measurement and awareness.

Innovative approaches to communicating the need for these measures are therefore needed, with several cities now actively engaging the public in tackling air quality exceedances, similar to what Dublin City has done.

In Berlin, for example, the levels of NO2 exceeded directive limits persistently for 30 years, accounting for 75 percent of emissions. Berlin authorities, therefore, implemented a plan to limit the speed of vehicles for an 8.5km stretch to 3km per hour. This improved the flow of vehicles, reduced noise, and cut emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx). The measures were largely successful and, significantly, involved a public consultation with key stakeholders met with, including non-governmental organizations such as taxi and freight businesses.

Sonitus Systems offers both the hardware and software for a range of environmental parameters on a continual basis, with real-time information available through our Sonitus Cloud dashboard. For more details on our indoor and outdoor noise and air quality monitoring products and services, please contact the team at Sonitus Systems.