Air quality is slowly improving
Air pollution shortens people’s lifespan and contributes to serious illnesses such as heart disease, respiratory problems and cancer. A new report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) presents the latest official air quality data reported by more than 4,000 monitoring stations across Europe in 2018. It shows that despite slow improvements (see Figure), high concentrations of air pollutants still have significant health impacts, with particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) and ground-level ozone (O₃) causing the greatest harm.
Figure: Percentage of EU urban population exposed to air pollutant concentrations above WHO air quality guidelines (2000–2018)
People living in urban areas are exposed to the highest levels of air pollution. In 2018, around 70 per cent of the EU urban population was exposed to levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exceeding the air quality guidelines established by the World Health Organization (WHO) to protect people’s health. And 99 per cent of EU urban citizens were exposed to ozone levels above the WHO’s guideline value (see Table 1).
Table1. Percentage of EU urban population exposed to air pollutant concentrations above EU and WHO reference levels in 2018.
|Rank||Country||Emissions 2018||Emissions 2019||Change 2018–2019|
The monitoring revealed PM2.5 concentrations in excess of the binding EU limit values in six EU member states (Poland, Czechia, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Italy).
In the 41 European countries considered, 417,000 premature deaths in 2018 were attributed to PM2.5 exposure, 55,000 to nitrogen dioxide exposure and 20,600 to ozone exposure. In the EU-28, the numbers of premature deaths attributed to PM2.5, NO₂ and O₃ exposure were 379,000, 54,000 and 19,400, respectively (see Table 2).
Country-by-country data is presented for the estimated number of years of life lost (YLL) and the YLL per 100,000 inhabitants due to exposure to the various pollutants. Regarding the latter, the largest impacts from PM2.5 were observed in the central and eastern European countries, i.e. Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria and North Macedonia.
The largest health impacts attributable to NO₂ exposure, expressed as YLL per 100,000 inhabitants, were found in Greece, Monaco, Romania, Cyprus, Italy and Spain. Regarding ozone, the countries with the highest rates of YLL per 100,000 inhabitants were Monaco, Albania, Hungary, Croatia and Czechia.
It should be noted that the impacts estimated for each pollutant may not be added to determine the total impact attributable to exposure to the three pollutants. Because concentrations – especially those of PM2.5 and NO₂ – are correlated, additions may result in double counting.
On top of the health impacts, air pollution continues to damage vegetation and ecosystems. Elevated concentrations of ground-level ozone, for example, damage agricultural crops, forests and plants. In 2018, the EU’s long-term objective for the protection of vegetation was exceeded in 95 per cent of the total EU agricultural area, and the critical level for the protection of forests was exceeded in 87 per cent of the total EU forest area.
Excess deposition of sulphur and nitrogen compounds (from emissions of SO₂, NOx, and NH₃) contribute to the acidification of soil, lakes and rivers, causing the loss of biodiversity. In 2018, six per cent of the European ecosystem area was exposed to acidifying depositions exceeding the limits of nature’s tolerance.
Table 2. Estimates of premature deaths attributable to exposure to PM2.5, NO2 and O3 in 41 European countries in 2018.
|Belgium||7 400||1 200||350|
|Bulgaria||12 500||1 100||320|
|France||33 100||5 900||2 300|
|Germany||63 100||9 200||4 000|
|Greece||11 800||3 000||650|
|Italy||52 300||10 400||3 000|
|Netherlands||9 900||1 600||410|
|Poland||46 300||1 900||1 500|
|Romania||25 000||3 500||730|
|Spain||23 000||6 800||1 800|
|32 900||6 000||1 000|
|Total EU28||379 370||53 860||19 380|
|Total all||416 770||55 030||20 590|
Emissions of NH₃ and NOx also disrupt land and water ecosystems by introducing excessive amounts of nutrient nitrogen, causing eutrophication (the over-supply of nutrients), with resulting impacts on biodiversity. In 2018, about 65 per cent of the European ecosystem area was exposed to nitrogen deposition exceeding the critical eutrophication limits.
As this year’s report celebrates the 10th edition, a trend analysis for the main pollutants was performed for the period 2009–2018. This showed among other things that improvements in air quality achieved over the ten-year period have resulted in around 60,000 fewer people dying prematurely due to PM2.5 in 2018, compared to 2009.
“The EEA’s data prove that investing in better air quality is an investment for better health and productivity for all Europeans. Policies and actions that are consistent with EU’s zero pollution ambition, lead to longer and healthier lives and more resilient societies,” said EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx.
An analysis of the impacts of the lockdown measures implemented between the end of February and May to stop the spread of Covid-19 are presented in a special chapter in the report. The lockdown measures resulted in a decrease in emissions, particularly from transport sources, and a subsequent decrease in air pollution concentrations.
Reductions in NO₂ levels were greatest where lockdown measures were more severe, i.e. in Spain, Italy and France, and the biggest estimated reduction, of around 70 per cent, occurred at traffic stations in Spain and Italy. Levels of PM10 were also generally lowered across Europe in April 2020, although less than for NO₂. The greatest reductions, of around 35–40 per cent, were estimated at traffic stations in Spain and Italy.
The report “Air quality in Europe – 2020 report” (EEA Report No. 9/2020) is available at: www.eea.europa.eu