In 2010, around half of the European Union’s (EU) member states expect to surpass one or more of the legal limits set by the National Emission Ceilings Directive (NEC Directive). The annual status report recently released by the European Environment Agency (EEA) confirms that 11 countries anticipate exceeding their ceilings for nitrogen oxides (NOx)-some by more than 40%.

Of the four pollutants covered by the NEC Directive status report 2009, EU member states have the greatest difficulty meeting the emission limits for NOx; only 16 expect to remain within their respective NOx ceilings, with road transport bearing much of the blame. The road transport sector contributed around 40% of total EU-27 NOx emissions in 2008 and, although its overall emissions have decreased since 1990, the reduction has not always been as large as originally anticipated. This is partly because the sector has grown more than expected and partly because vehicle emission standards, especially those for diesel vehicles, have not always delivered the foreseen level of NOx reductions.

Several member states, including Slovenia, Sweden and the UK, expect to exceed their respective NOx ceilings by margins of less than 5%. In contrast, France and Spain expect to exceed their ceilings by 261 kilotons and 236 kilotons, respectively-equivalent to surpluses of 32% and 28%. Other countries expecting lower surpluses in absolute terms would exceed their limits by even larger margins, notably Austria (42%), Belgium (43%) and Ireland (47%).

The EU NEC Directive sets pollutant-specific and legally binding emission ceilings (limits) for four main air pollutants: sulphur dioxide (SO2), NOx, non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) and ammonia (NH3). These pollutants harm both human health and the environment by contributing to the formation of ozone and particulate matter and leading to acidification and eutrophication. Member states must meet the NEC Directive’s ceilings by 2010 in order to deliver the originally agreed health and environmental benefits.

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