23rd Apr 2021

EU air quality improves, but pollution levels still high

  • Some 74 percent of the EU's urban population is exposed to dangerous concentrations of particulate matter (Photo: Skaja Lee)

The last decade has seen air-quality improvements across the continent, but many European citizens are still exposed to illegal and dangerous levels of pollution, according to data released by the European Environment Agency (EEA) on Monday (23 November).

Air pollution is currently the biggest environmental risk to human health in the EU, with 379,000 premature deaths attributed to exposure to particulate matter, 54,000 to nitrogen dioxide and 19,000 to ground-level ozone in 2018.

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But, in a small sign of progress, the number of premature deaths linked to exposure to particulate matter and nitrogen oxide (both resulting from road traffic and other fossil fuel combustion processes) was respectively 13 percent and 34 percent lower than in 2009.

Between 2009 and 2018, sulphur dioxide emissions resulting from fossil-fuel-based energy production also decreased by 79 percent, while ammonia emissions from fertilisers and livestock manure in the agriculture sector were cut by 10 percent.

"It is good news that air quality is improving. But we can't ignore the downside - the number of premature deaths in Europe due to air pollution is still far too high," the EU commissioner for environment, Virginijus Sinkevičius, said on Monday.

The EEA report found 74 percent of the EU's urban population is exposed to concentrations of particulate matter above the level established by the World Health Organization's guidance for breathable air. So far, only Estonia, Finland, Iceland and Ireland have stayed below the limits.

Additionally, the EEA executive director Hans Bruyninckx warned about the increase of concentrations of ground ozone emissions since 2013, and its impact on health, as a "problem that requires policy attention".

"[The concentration of] ground-level ozone is concerning as there is a close link with climate change and urban heating effects which, of course, have an immediate impact on the health condition of the most vulnerable during the summer months," Bruyninckx told a press conference.

Covid-19 link still unclear

Meanwhile, the coronavirus lockdowns introduced by almost all member states in the spring led to significant reductions in air pollution - particularly from road transport, aviation and international shipping.

But differences were found within cities and across countries.

In April, for instance, concentrations of nitrogen dioxide fell by 70 percent in Spain and Italy, where lockdowns were more severe.

The EU agency is also studying how air pollution influences the transmission of coronavirus and human vulnerability, but it said that further work is required to assess the full situation.

Earlier this year, the commission concluded that a majority of member states were not on target to deliver on their air pollution reduction commitments for 2020 and 2030.

There are currently 31 ongoing infringement procedures against 18 member states for failing to implement EU air quality rules at national level, and last month the EU's top court ruled that Italy has been flouting rules on air pollution for a decade.

Under EU rules, every EU country had to put forward plans to tackle air pollution in 2018. However, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg and Romania have yet to submit any strategy.

Next year, the commission is expected to adopt an action plan, as part of the Green Deal, focus on reducing air, water and soil levels of pollution.

MEPs agree carbon border tax - heavy industries protected

Green groups warned that if heavy industry continues to receive free allowances even after a carbon border levy is in place, this would essentially be a double subsidy for those sectors. "The European Commission must correct this," the WWF warned.

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