Serrano, H.C., Oliveira, M.A., Barros, C., Augusto, A.S., Pereira, M.J., Pinho, P. & Branquinho, C. (2019) Measuring and mapping the effectiveness of the European Air Quality Directive in reducing N and S deposition at the ecosystem level.Science of the Total Environment, 647, 1531-1538. DOI:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.08.059 (IF2019 6,551; Q1 Environmental Sciences)
To protect human health and the environment (namely ecosystems), international air quality protocols and guidelines, like the Gothenburg protocol (1999) and the 2001 EU Air Quality Directive (NECD), conveyed national emission ceilings for atmospheric pollutants (Directive 2001/81/EC), including the reduction of sulfur (S) and nitrogen (N) emissions by 2010. However, to what degree this expected reduction in emissions had reflections at the ecosystem level (i.e. pollutant levels reaching and impacting ecosystems and their organisms) remains unknown. Here, we used lichens as ecological indicators, together with reported air and precipitation pollutant concentrations, to determine and map the consequences of the S and N atmospheric emission's reduction, during the implementation of the 2001 Directive (in 2002 and 2011), due primarily to the industrial-sector. The study area is a mixed-land-use industrialized Mediterranean agroforest ecosystem, in southwest Europe.
The reduction of S emissions (2002−2011) was reflected at the ecosystem level, as the same S-declining trend was observed in atmospheric measurement stations and lichens alike (−70%), indicating that most S deposited to the ecosystem had an industrial origin. However, this was not the case for N with a slight N-reduction near industrial facilities, but mostly N-deposition in lichens increased in areas dominated by agricultural land-uses.
Taken together, these results highlight the importance of going beyond emissions estimation and modeling, to assess the success of the implementation of the NECD in lowering pollutant accumulation in living organisms and their environment. This can only be achieved by measuring pollutant deposition at the ecosystem level (e.g. living organisms). By doing so, we were able to show that the 2001 NECD was successful in reducing S concentrations from Industry, whereas N remains a challenge. Despite the small reduction in N-emissions, deposition into ecosystems did not reflect these changes as agriculture and transport sectors must reduce NH3 and NOx emissions.