Green Paper on future noise policy


Environmental noise, caused by traffic, industrial and recreational activities is one of the main local environmental problems in Europe and the source of an increasing number of complaints from the public. Generally however action to reduce environmental noise has had a lower priority than that taken to address other environmental problems such as air and water pollution.

The 1993 Fifth Environmental Action Programme started to remedy this and included a number of basic targets for noise exposure to be reached by the year 2000, while the recent proposal on the review of the Fifth Action Programme (COM(95)647) announces the development of a noise abatement programme for action to meet these targets.

This Green Paper is the first step in the development of such a programme and aims to stimulate public discussion on the future approach to noise policy. It reviews the overall noise situation and Community and national action taken to date followed by the outline of a framework for action covering the improvement of information and its comparability and future options for the reduction of noise from different sources.

The Noise Situation in the European Union

The data available on noise exposure is generally poor in comparison to that collected to measure other environmental problems and often difficult to compare due to the different measurement and assessment methods. However it has been estimated that around 20 percent of the Union's population or close on 80 million people suffer from noise levels that scientists and health experts consider to be unacceptable, where most people become annoyed, where sleep is disturbed and where adverse health effects are to be feared. An additional 170 million citizens are living in so-called 'grey areas' where the noise levels are such to cause serious annoyance during the daytime.

A wide variety of studies have examined the question of the external costs of noise to society especially transport noise. The estimates range from 0.2% to 2% of GDP. The Commission's Green Paper 'Fair and Efficient Pricing in Transport' used the lower estimate of 0.2% of GDP which represents an annual cost to society of over 12 billion ECU.

Analysis of Existing Noise Abatement Actions in the European Union

For more than twenty years Community environmental noise policy has essentially consisted of legislation fixing maximum sound levels for vehicles, aeroplanes and machines with a single market aim, or to implement international agreements in the case of aircraft, linked to certification procedures to ensure that new vehicles and equipment are, at the time of manufacture complying with the noise limits laid down in directives.

Thanks to this legislation and technological progress significant reductions of noise from individual sources have been achieved. For example the noise from individual cars has been reduced by 85% since 1970 and the noise from lorries by 90%. Likewise for aircraft the noise footprint around an airport made by a modern jet has been reduced by a factor of 9 compared to an aircraft with 1970s technology.

However data covering the past 15 years do not show significant improvements in exposure to environmental noise especially road traffic noise. The growth and spread of traffic in spaceand time and the development of leisure activities and tourism have partly offset the technological improvements. Forecast road and air traffic growth and the expansion of high speed rail risk exacerbating the noise problem. In the case of motor vehicles other factors are also important such as the dominance of tyre noise above quite low speeds (50 km/h) and the absence of regular noise inspection and maintenance procedures.

For some sources such as railways and a wide range of noisy equipment used outdoors there are no Community or international standards setting emission limits. A number of Member States are planning national legislation for these products, which could cause problems for the functioning of the single market.

Most Member States have adopted legislation or recommendations setting immission limits for noise exposure in sensitive areas. These are often integrated into national abatement laws and used in land use plans especially for new infrastructure developments. A survey done for the Commission has shown a considerable degree of convergence between Member States in the establishment of such quality criteria for road, rail and industrial noise. The situation for aircraft noise indices and exposure levels is more divergent.

A New Framework for Noise Policy

In the light of the poor state of data on noise exposure and the shortcomings identified in the analysis of existing policy measures, the Commission believes that changes in the overall approach are required if a noise abatement policy is to be successful. This requires a framework based on shared responsibility involving target setting, monitoring of progress and measures to improve the accuracy and standardisation of data to help improve the coherency of different actions.

The local nature of noise problems does not mean that all action is best taken at local level, as for example generally the sources of environmental noise are not of local origin. However effective action is very dependent on strong local and national policies and these need to be more closely related to the measures to be decided at Community level. In this context there is scope for cooperation across the Community to improve the data situation and the comparability of information and in addition the Community could assist in the exchange of experience in noise abatement between Member States. The main area for Community involvement will remain linked to the reduction of noise from products. Here the Commission will be looking to broaden the range of instruments applied and paying particular attention to the potential of economic instruments, whose use to date is not widespread in noise abatement.

The proposed new framework outlines options for future action :

  1. A proposal for a directive providing for the harmonization of methods of assessment of noise exposure and the mutual exchange of information. The proposal could include recommendations on noise mapping and the provision of information on noise exposure to the public. In a second stage consideration could be given to the establishment of target values and the obligation to take action to reach the targets.

  2. The next phase of action to reduce road traffic noise will address tyre noise and look at the possibilities of integrating noise costs into fiscal instruments, amending Community legislation on road-worthiness tests to include noise and at the promotion of low noise surfaces through Community funding.

  3. More attention needs to be paid to rail noise where some Member States are planning national legislation and where there is considerable opposition to the expansion of rail capacity due to excessive noise. In addition to supporting research in this field the Commission will investigate the feasibility of introducing legislation setting emission limit values, negotiated agreements with the rail industry on targets for emission values and economic instruments such as a variable track charge.

  4. In air transport the Commission is also looking at a combination of instruments. These would include greater stringency in emission values and the use of economic instruments to encourage the development and use of lower noise aircraft, as well the contribution local measures such as land use planning could make. A specific framework directive on airport charges is planned for 1996. A consultation paper on stringency in emission values is to be presented in the near future.

  5. The Commission plans to simplify the existing legislation setting emission limits for a limited range of outdoor equipment and will propose a framework directive covering a wider range of equipment including construction machinery, garden equipment and others and incorporate the existing seven directives. The principal feature of the new legislation will be the requirement to label all equipment with the guaranteed noise level. Limit values will only be proposed for equipment for which there is already noise legislation and a limited range of highly noisy equipment.


One of the main aims of this paper is to help to give noise abatement a higher priority in policy making. It is focusing on the areas where Community action in cooperation with Member States and local authorities can be of added value. The options for action on measurement methods and exchange of information cover important steps for the establishment of an overall framework for action. More work is required to assess the best combination of instruments to be applied to the different modes of transport.

NPC Menu Bar NPC Home Page Support NPC Ask NPC Search the NPC Home Page NPC QuietNet NPC Resources NPC Hearing Loss and Occupational Noise Library NPC Noise News NPC Law Library NPC Library