Photo: /Gillian Thomas CC BY

EU law instrumental for cleaning up power plants

The EU Large Combustion Plants Directive was the main driver behind the significant air pollutant emission cuts in this sector from 2004 to 2015, according to a new EEA report.

In response primarily to the problems of transboundary air pollution – with impacts such as widespread forest dieback and freshwater acidification – the first EU regulation aimed at controlling air pollutant emissions from this sector, namely the Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD), was adopted in 1988.

LCPs are plants with an installed capacity greater than 50 megawatts of thermal energy (MWth) that generate heat and/or electricity. With more than 3400 LCPs in operation in the EU in 2015, they are a common feature in the electricity and heat supply sectors, in oil refineries, in chemical industries and in iron and steel production, etc.

In the 1990s, increasing attention was turned to the significant health damage caused by air pollutants, which triggered several new initiatives to bring down emissions, including the adoption of a revised and strengthened LCPD in 2001.

As of 1 January 2016, the LCPD has been fully repealed by the 2010 Industrial Emissions Directive, which integrates within a single regulation elements of the 2001 LCPD and the 2008 Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive (IPPCD).

The new study by the European Environment Agency (EEA) covers emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and dust from large combustion plants in all EU member states (EU28) between 2004 and 2015.

It was found that during this time period, emissions from large combustion plants of SO2 decreased by 81 per cent, those of NOx by 49 per cent, and dust by 77 per cent, and that the LCPD accounted for most of these emission reductions.

In response to more stringent industrial emissions legislation, especially the LCPD and the IPPCD, as well as broader policies and measures adopted in the context of the National Emission Ceilings Directive, LCPs have been equipped with abatement technologies to lower their emissions of air pollutants. Moreover, old, or less efficient, plants may be shut down. As a result of these factors, the mass of air pollutants emitted per unit of fuel burned by LCPs – i.e. the specific emission factors – will change.

The EEA assessment shows that the LCPD has played an important role in harmonising the sector’s environmental performance across the EU. In 2004, emission factors varied strikingly among EU countries, but the analysis shows that member states with the highest emission factors in 2004 improved their environmental performance most, leading to much smaller differences between countries in 2015.

It was also shown that the LCP emission factors decreased significantly between 2004 and 2015 for all air pollutants, and especially between 2007 and 2008, when existing LCPs had to become compliant with the stricter emission limit values set under the LCPD.

A comparison was carried out to illustrate the benefits of implementing the LCPD in relation to a hypothetical “no-progress” scenario. Another scenario estimated how much more substantial the benefits could have been if a stricter implementation of the two legal instruments – the LCPD and the IPPCD – had been achieved in practice. The latter used emissions corresponding to the so-called lower BAT-AELs in the 2006 reference document on best available techniques (BREF) for LCPs.

If all LCPs in the EU had operated exactly in accordance with the lower BAT-AELs, total LCP emissions would have fallen more significantly by 2015 than they actually did, by 98 per cent for SO2, 82 per cent for NOx, and 93 per cent for dust. In contrast, had the environmental performance (the implied emission factors) of plants not improved over the period, LCP emissions across the EU would have decreased by only 27 per cent for SO2, 29 per cent for NOx, and 41 per cent for dust.

Within the time period investigated, two main phases could be identified: 2004–2007 and 2008–2015. During the first period (2004–2007), the effects of the LCPD were predominant over those of other related policies. In this first period, the LCPD affected air pollutant emissions in two key ways: 1) Through the installation of abatement technologies so that plants could comply with the LCPD emission limit values by 2008; and 2) Through the closure of inefficient LCPs that were unable to meet the LCPD emission limit values.

In the second period (2008–2015), the LCPD increasingly overlapped with a number of climate and energy policies, such as the Emission Trading System (ETS), the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED).

The EEA concludes that: “The emission reductions in large combustion plants provide a clear success story to build upon and many elements of the policy can be useful to implement the new rules and design regulation in other sectors. At the same time, the report notes aspects of the directive that could have been even more ambitious. This knowledge is valuable for the energy sector to meet its current targets for decarbonisation and cutting pollutant emissions.”

Christer Ågren

The report: ”Assessing the effectiveness of EU policy on large combustion plants in reducing air pollutant emissions.” EEA Report No 07/2019. Link:


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