Informing European air quality policies

The Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program has provided the quantitative analysis for EU air quality policies since 1995, including the National Emissions Ceiling Directives, the Gothenburg Protocol revisions, and the Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution. In 2016, the EU reached a landmark agreement based on analyses using the program’s Greenhouse Gas – Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies (GAINS) model, which will cut the health impacts of air pollution in half.

Extensive GAINS analyses of the costs and benefits of additional air pollution control measures and their impacts across EU member states and economic sectors formed the basis of the European Commission’s “Clean Air Policy Package.” This was a proposal for air quality legislation that would cut the health impacts of air pollution in the EU in half by 2030, compared to 2005, as well as reducing environmental impacts such as forest damage and biodiversity loss.

First presented by the Commission in 2013, the proposal was then discussed by the European Parliament and the European Council. While the political positions of the three institutions differed, for the first time ever they all agreed on the use of a common scientific tool: the IIASA GAINS model, as a shared knowledge base that feeds latest scientific findings into actual policy negotiations. To foster the acceptance of GAINS as a shared tool, the Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program hosted bilateral consultations with more than 100 experts of all 28 EU member states to review and improve the GAINS databases and align them with national information.

On request by the European Commission and the European Council, the program also produced a series of 17 policy reports that address critical issues on the potential and costs of further emission control measures (e.g., for transport, agriculture, and small combustion sources), and explore the implications of Europe-wide cost-effective strategies for reducing health impacts in the various member states and economic sectors. The reports also explain the GAINS methodology and input data.

In 2014, the European Parliament requested a specific study from IIASA to outline the impacts of the recently agreed climate policy targets on implementation costs of the proposed national emission ceilings for air pollution. In addition, the study explored economically rational adjustments of the ambition levels for air quality policies [1].

After extensive policy negotiations, in 2016 the three European institutions agreed on a compromise solution that establishes the upper limits for emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, volatile organic compounds, and fine particulate matter for each member state by 2030. This unprecedented agreement should reduce the health impacts from air pollution by 50% compared to 2005.

Total and marginal costs and benefits of further emission controls in the EU. The GAINS methodology identifies cost-effective portfolios of specific measures that improve local air quality and, at the same time, reduce global climate change. This approach, which focuses on actions that yield co-benefits at different spatial and temporal scales, provides a fresh perspective to clean air and climate policy development in many countries and world regions.


[1] Amann M, Heyes C, Kiesewetter G, Schoepp W, & Wagner F (2014). Complementary Impact Assessment on Interactions between EU Air Quality Policy and Climate and Energy Policy. PE 528.802. Brussels, Belgium: European Parliamentary Research Service Ex-Ante Impact Assessment Unit, European Parliament.


In the process of policy development, AIR cooperated with a wide network of national scientific institutions and researchers, many of them IIASA alumni, to jointly elaborate the methodologies and databases of the GAINS model. Key contributions were made from research organizations from IIASA member countries, including:

  • National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, Netherlands
  • IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, Sweden
  • Norwegian Meteorological Institute (MET.NO), Norway
  • Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE), Finland
  • Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, UK
  • Imperial College, UK
  • European Commission Joint Research Centres, Italy and Spain

Further information

EU Clean Air Policy Package