The directive on national emission ceilings (NEC)

       Photo: @rild CC BY-NC-ND

The first NEC directive (2001/81/EC) was adopted in 2001. It sets binding emission ceilings to be achieved by each member state by 2010 and not to be exceeded thereafter. The directive covers four air pollutants: sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) and ammonia (NH3).

The aim of the directive is to gradually improve, through a stepwise reduction of the four pollutants, the protection both of human health and the environment throughout the EU. The directive establishes interim environmental quality targets that are to be attained by 2010.

These targets constitute the first step towards the achievement of the long-term objectives of not exceeding the so-called critical loads, and of effective protection of human health against risks from air pollution, as laid down in the EU's Fifth and Sixth Environmental Action Programmes.

This NEC directive is the key legislation for the achievement of those environmental objectives, as well as for attaining the EU air quality standards for a number of pollutants, including SO2, NO2, particles (PM10 and PM2.5) and ground-level ozone.

A process of review and revision of the NEC directive started around 2003 as part of the work under the CAFE programme, and a proposal for revision was originally expected at the same time as the publication of the Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution in 2005. But for many years the Commission repeatedly postponed the adoption and publication of a revision proposal.

In March 2011, the Commission released a policy paper on the review of EU air pollution policies, which among others stated that a proposal for a revised NEC directive was to presented in 2013, at the latest. And, at the very end of the EU’s “Year of Air”, on 18 December 2013, the Commission finally presented its new clean air policy package, including a proposal for a new NEC directive.

The new NEC directive replaces the existing one from 2001 by keeping the current 2010 emission caps in place up to 2020, after which they will be replaced by percentage emission reduction commitments (ERCs) for 2020, in line with those already adopted in 2012 under the LRTAP Convention’s Gothenburg Protocol.

In addition, the new NEC directive establishes more far-reaching legally binding ERCs to be achieved by 2030, as well as intermediate reduction targets for 2025. The latter are defined by a linear trajectory between the emission levels in 2020 and 2030. The country-by-country ERCs for 2020 and 2030 are contained in Annex II of the directive.

While the 2001 NEC directive covered four pollutants – SO2, NOx, NMVOCs and NH3 – the Commission proposed that the new one was to be extended to also cover fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and the ozone-precursor methane (CH4).

The ambition level of the Commission's proposal for a new NEC directive was to cut EU-wide emissions of SO2 by 81 per cent; NOx by 69 per cent; NMVOCs by 50 per cent; ammonia (NH3) by 27 per cent; particulate matter (PM2.5) by 51 per cent; and, methane (CH4) by 33 per cent by 2030, compared to the emission levels in the base year 2005. These emission reductions should improve health protection (health damage from PM2.5) by 52 per cent from 2005 to 2030.

The European Parliament finalised its first reading of the NEC directive on 28 October 2015. It supported the emission reduction targets as proposed by the Commission, but it wanted the targets for 2025, which the Commission proposed should only be indicative, to be made binding. Moreover, the Parliament agreed on a number of changes to improve and strengthen the proposed directive, such as improved reporting, clearly stated long-term objectives, better access to justice, and the addition of a review clause. It also wanted to remove a Commission proposal for flexibility that would have allowed members states to offset reductions in emissions from international shipping, since such offsets would be extremely difficult to apply and would exclude landlocked countries. The Parliament also wanted the Commission to perform an impact assessment on including mercury in the directive.

During 2015, proposed NEC directive was also negotiated by member states in the Council, and a general approach was reached in December 2015, in which member states opted for relaxed national emission reduction targets, the introduction of additional flexibility mechanisms, and the removal of the ozone precursor methane. 

In winter and spring 2016, the Council, Parliament and Commission negotiated the contents of the NEC directive, with the aim to achieve a first-reading agreement, and a provisional agreement was reached on 30 June. The new NEC directive (2016/2284) was formally adopted in December, and it entered into force on 31 December 2016.

The ambition level of the adopted new NEC directive is to cut EU-wide emissions of SO2 by 79 per cent; NOx by 63 per cent; NMVOCs by 40 per cent; ammonia (NH3) by 19 per cent; and particulate matter (PM2.5) by 49 per cent, compared to the emission levels in the base year 2005. These emission reductions should improve health protection (health damage from PM2.5) by 49.6 per cent from 2005 to 2030.

Failure to meet the 2010 NECs

Preliminary data for 2015 shows that eleven countries breached at least one emission ceiling, compared to twelve countries in 2012. The most commonly breached ceilings were those for NOx and NH3, with six member states exceeding their limits.

Emission ceilings for NMVOCs were breached by five countries (Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Ireland and Luxembourg). For the fifth year in a row, all member states met their SO2 limits.

Several countries have persistent problems meeting their national emission limits – for example, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland and Luxembourg have breached their NOx ceilings for six consecutive years, and Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Spain and Sweden have all breached their NH3 ceilings for six years running (2010–15). Germany was the only country that exceeded three of the four emission ceilings, while Austria, Denmark, Ireland and Luxembourg exceeded two ceilings in 2015.

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), emissions from road transport were the main reason for exceedances of the NOx limits, while emissions from agriculture – mainly from the use of fertilisers and the handling of animal manure – were responsible for excessive NH3 emissions.

Projections for 2020 and 2030

On top of reporting past emissions, member states must also report projected emissions for future target years, in order to assess whether or not they are on track towards meeting their reduction commitments for 2020 and 2030. According to the projections reported in 2017, 18 countries are not on track to meet their reduction commitments set for 2020 for one or more of the five pollutants. And 22 countries are not on track for one or more of their 2030 commitments.

Following the new NEC Directive, member states have to produce and report by April 2019 national air pollution control programmes (NAPCP) that set out the additional emission abatement measures needed to achieve their future emission reduction commitments.

Table 1: EU countries’ emissions compared to the national emission ceilings of the NEC directive for 2010 and 2011.

Member state NOx % above/below ceiling NMVOC % above/below ceiling SO2 % above/below ceiling

NH3 % above/below ceiling

  2010 2011 2010 2011 2010 2011 2010 2011
Austria 43 40 -17 -21 -52 -53 -5 -6
Belgium 25 19 -23 -28 -35 -44 -9 -9
Bulgaria -53 -53 -47 -46 -54 -54 -53 -55
Cyprus -22 -9 -17 -31 -43 -46 -39 -43
Czech Republic -16 -21 -31 -34 -36 -36 -14 -18
Denmark 5 -1 1 -6 -73 -75 0.4 -1
Estonia -39 -41 -29 -32 -17 -27 -65 -64
Finland -2 -9 -10 -16 -39 -48 21 20
France 33 24 -23 -30 -23 -32 -17 -14
Germany 27 23 6 1 -15 -14 0.4 2
Greece -7 -14 -29 -39 -49 -50 -12 -16
Hungary -18 -35 -21 -27 -94 -93 -27 -28
Ireland 16 4 -19 -22 -38 -44 -7 -6
Italy -3 -5 -7 -11 -56 -56 -10 -7
Latvia -44 -48 -51 -49 -97 -97 -61 -71
Lithuania -50 -54 -25 -25 -77 -75 -64 -65
Luxembourg 63 64 -6 -1 -45 -57 -34 -34
Malta 1 -2 -79 -75 -10 -12 -48 -48
Netherlands 5 0 -22 -22 -32 -33 -5 -7
Poland -2 -3 -18 -19 -32 -35 -42 -42
Portugal -26 -30 -2 -2 -67 -71 -48 -48
Romania -50 -49 -30 -32 -62 -64 -24 -24
Slovakia -32 -35 -55 -51 -37 -38 -36 -38
Slovenia -1 -1 -25 -64 -64 -60 -13 -16
Spain 6 10 -6 -10 -40 -33 10 8
Sweden 4 -2 -26 -53 -53 -56 -9 -9
United Kingdom -5 -11 -37 -30 -30 -35 -4 -2
Sum EU27 -1 -4 -19 -22 -46 -47 -16 -15
Sum achieved 16 20 25 26 27 27 23 24
Sum not met 11 7 2 1 0 0 4 3


Figure 1: Aggregated emissions for 2010 and 2011 as reported by member states, compared with the ceilings defined in Annex I and Annex II of the directive, measured in kilotonnes.

>> Further reading

Persistent failure to meet NOx and NH3 limits. Article in Acid News 3/2017.

Clearing the air - A critical guide to the new NEC directive (February 2017). Report by AirClim, EEB and ClientEarth.

New NEC Directive in force. Article in Acid News 1/2017.

New watered-down EU air pollution targets. Article in Acid News 3/2016.

10 countries still breach EU's air pollution limits. Article in Acid News 3/2016.

Tougher air pollution targets needed. Article in Acid News 2/2016.

Member states opt for weakening air pollution targets. Article in Acid News 1/2016.

MEPs weaken air pollution ambition. Article in Acid News 4/2015.

EU air pollution emission limits still exceeded. Article in Acid News 3/2015.

Environment MEPs want stricter air pollutant caps. Article in Acid News 3/2015.

Higher ambitions needed for NEC. Article in Acid News 2/2015.

Achieving NEC targets will cost less. Article in Acid News 1/2015.

PM pollution requires EU-wide action. Article in Acid News 4/2014.

Air quality targets much cheaper than expected. Article in Acid News 4/2014.

Emissions are falling - but not enough. Article in Acid News 3/2014.

Profitable to cut air pollution. Article in Acid News 2/2014.

A new EU clean air strategy up to 2030. Article in Acid News 1/2014.

Finding the ambition level. Article in Acid News 2/2013.

NEC Directive Status Report 2012 (May 2013). EEA Technical report No 6/2012.

NEC directive limits exceeded in twelve countries. Article in Acid News 1/2012.

High economic benefits of new NEC directive. Article in Acid News 1/2011.

New analysis of national emission ceilings. Article in Acid News 4/2010.

NEC Directive status report 2009 (September 2010). EEA Technical report No. 10/2010 (pdf, 1.4 MB). Also summarised in Acid News 3/10.

The NEC directive (May 2004). Factsheet from AirClim, May 2004

Directive 2001/81/EC on national emission ceilings for certain atmospheric pollutants (October 2001) (pdf, EU Official Journal)

European Commission DG Environment: National emission ceilings

IIASA. Reports presenting scenario analyses, country-by-country data, etc.

Updated: 2017-09-25