Breathing clean air is a basic human need. At the same time, however, human activities cause air pollution. The main sources are energy consumption, road transport, agriculture and the production of goods. Of all air pollutants, particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen dioxide affect human health the most. Stringent limit values and measures to reduce emissions from industry, transport and private households have helped to significantly decrease air pollution in Germany from previous decades. Concentrations of nitrogen dioxides still exceed the valid limit in a number of towns and cities. Emissions of particulate matter caused in part by road traffic, industrial installations, household heating systems and agriculture are still at a level in Germany that poses a considerable health risk in many places. Some of the airborne particulate matter is formed through the conversion of gaseous air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and ammonia. These air pollutants also damage ecosystems and their biological diversity via nitrogen and/or ozone inputs.
Emissions are generally defined as any discharge of substances or energy from a source into the environment. The Federal Immission Control Act defines emissions as air pollution, noise, light or vibrations originating from an installation. Immission is defined as the effects of these emissions on the environment; in the case of air pollution on people, plants, animals, materials and the atmosphere.
According to the EUs Environment Action Programme, the long-term goal is to achieve a level of air quality throughout Europe that does not give rise to unacceptable impacts or risks to people and the environment. It aims in particular to reduce emissions of ground-level ozone, acidification, eutrophication (over- fertilisation as a result of nitrogen input) and particulate matter. The Directive on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants stipulates that by 2030 emissions are to be reduced EU-wide compared to 2005 levels as follows:
The strategy for air pollution control is essentially based on four pillars:
- defining air quality standards
- requirements to limit emissions (usually emission limit values) based on state-of-the-art technology
- product regulations
- defining emission reduction commitments
A significant share of pollution is caused by long-distance transport across national borders. Therefore EU and international policies to control transboundary air pollution are of strategic importance for the German government. One example is Germanys active involvement in the Geneva (UNECE) Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution.
Emission limit values are increasingly specified in European regulations and transposed into German law, or are directly applicable. Important European directives include Directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe, Directive 2010/75/ EU on industrial emissions (IED), and Directive 2016/2284/EU on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants (NEC Directive). The latter requires all member states to reduce national emissions of the air pollutants sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds except methane (NMVOC), ammonia (NH3) and primary particulate matter (PM2,5) by 2030.
The National Clean Air Programme adopted by the German government on 22 May 2019 sets out the measures the government intends to implement to meet the requirements of the NEC Directive and thus further improve air quality in Germany by 2030. The primary aim is to significantly reduce particulate matter and its precursors such as ammonia, which play a key role in the formation of particulate matter.
The following measures aim to reduce air pollution further, especially particulate matter, by 2030:
- the 44th Ordinance on the Implementation of the Federal Immission Control Act for the reduction of emissions from medium-sized combustion plants
- requirements for emissions from new passenger cars in real driving emissions
- the phase-out of lignite and hard coal-based electricity
- the adaptation of the Technical Instructions on Air Quality ( TA Luft)
- other agricultural measures in installation and fertiliser legislation
These measures will further reduce emissions of primary particulate matter and of gaseous pollutants that contribute to the formation of secondary particulate matter.
The National Clean Air Programme aims to reduce large-scale air pollution in the long term (by 2030). It is therefore not directly related to local measures, for example to comply with NO2 limit values in city centres.
Air quality control in Germany is mainly governed by the Act on the Prevention of Harmful Effects on the Environment Caused by Air Pollution, Noise, Vibration and Similar Phenomena, known as the Federal Immission Control Act (BImSchG), and its implementing ordinances and administrative regulations. Air quality control regulations are also in place at the federal state level.
The Technical Instructions on Air Quality Control (TA Luft), which have been revised in 2021, are a comprehensive instrument for German authorities to control air pollution. They contain provisions to protect people and environment from unacceptably high pollution originating from installations as well as requirements according to Best Available Techniques to prevent adverse effects on the environment. They set emission limits for all relevant air pollutants from most industrial installations. Existing installations must be upgraded to reflect the best available technology.
The Ordinance on Small and Medium-Sized Firing Installations (1. BImSchV), which was amended and came into force in March 2010, makes an important contribution to reducing emissions from what are known as small firing installations. The focus is on regulations for firing installations for solid fuels, such as split logs, wood pellets and wood chips, which can be a significant source of particulate matter and other air pollutants. Both central solid fuel heating boilers and single-room firing installations (wood-burning stoves, et cetera) are subject to strict requirements. For example, new firing installations have to comply with strict emission limits for dust and carbon monoxide; existing installations have to be retrofitted or shut down when the respective limit values are exceeded at the end of transitional periods. Implementation of legal regulations and responsible handling of wood as a fuel by the operator of the firing installation make a substantial contribution to reducing particulate matter emissions in the affected residential areas.
Implementation of legal regulations and responsible handling of wood as a fuel by the operator of the firing installation make a substantial contribution to reducing particulate matter emissions in the affected residential areas.
The Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) is the central set of rules for emission reduction from large industrial installations in Europe. It regulates the permitting, operation, monitoring and decommissioning of around 52,000 industrial plants across Europe and about 10 000 plants in Germany. All emissions to the air and wastewater, but also noise, waste and impacts on the soil are included. In addition, the IED sets requirements for energy efficiency and the prevention of accidents. A substantial portion of the emission reductions necessary to meet the above-mentioned goals will be achieved by implementing the IED and the related implementing decisions of the European Commission on Best Available Techniques (BAT). Since the IED entered into force, the EU Commission has published a number of implementing decisions, which primarily set ranges that are the basis for setting emission limits, for example for:
- installations in the cement, lime and magnesium oxide industry
- installations for the production of iron and steel
- installations to manufacture glass
- installations in the leather and textile industries
- installations in the chlor-alkali industry
- installations in the pulp and paper industry
- installations for the production of wood-based panels
- installations of the non-ferrous metal industry
- wastewater/exhaust gas treatment and wastewater/exhaust gas management in the chemical industry
- intensive livestock farming of poultry and pigs
- installations for the production of basic organic chemicals
- waste treatment plants
- waste incineration plants
- installations for the production of food, beverages and milk
- surface treatment using organic solvents
The Industrial Emissions Directive is currently under revision. Information on the evaluation and revision process can be accessed here.
In the Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers under the Aarhus Convention of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters), Germany and the European Union have committed themselves to set up and maintain pollutant release and transfer registers.
This enables citizens to access information on the releases of pollutants into air, water and soil and on transfers of waste and pollutants into wastewater by industrial facilities.
In addition to the national pollutant release and transfer register, which is freely accessible through a website (www.thru.de), there is the European pollutant release and transfer register, which contains data from all member states of the European Union. Each industrial facility provides information to their national authority on the quantities of pollutants, if they exceed a certain reporting threshold, covering 91 key pollutants including heavy metals and dioxins.
The Regulation on the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) is currently under revision. Information on the evaluation and revision process can be accessed here.
From mobility to heating: everyone can help improve air quality. Anyone who rides a bicycle, walks or takes the bus and train, who retrofits their diesel vehicle with an SCR system, has heating systems serviced regularly and eats a more eco-friendly diet helps to reduce emissions of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ammonia. Everyone can do his or her part to improve air quality. We must not relent in our efforts. We have made great strides to make the air cleaner, but there is still a lot to do.