26th Jan 2021

Green Deal

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

First look at EU's new '21st Century Bauhaus' project

The European Commission unveiled its plans for the 'New European Bauhaus' initiative - an environmental, economic and cultural project whose aim is to design "future ways of living" in a sustainable manner.

New EU rules for energy-project funding to keep fossil gas

The European Commission will unveil a reform of EU criteria for picking energy infrastructure projects for financial support - with a particular focus on hydrogen. However, green groups have warned of the risks of not excluding fossil fuels.

News in Brief

  1. AstraZeneca told to meet EU vaccine supply commitments
  2. Estonia to get first woman prime minister
  3. Turkey and Greece to hold Mediterranean security talks
  4. Dutch police detain 240 in anti-lockdown protests
  5. Renewables overtake fossil fuels in EU electricity mix
  6. France's top scientist warns of corona 'emergency'
  7. Growing appetite for Northern Ireland independence
  8. Surge in support for Portuguese far-right party


Live: Join the Nordic climate debate 'Choosing Green'

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has stalled climate negotiations, work has not stopped. The 'Choosing Green' debate will address some of the most important and most complex key areas relating to the global green transition. Live on EUobserver from 10:00 (CET).

Timmermans 'disappointed' with ongoing CAP reform

For European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, the Common Agricultural Policy has to answer to "higher expectations" on climate action, protection of biodiversity and environmental sustainability, while ensuring a fair income for all farmers.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  2. CESIKlaus Heeger and Romain Wolff re-elected Secretary General and President of independent trade unions in Europe (CESI)
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersReport: The prevalence of men who use internet forums characterised by misogyny
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic climate debate on 17 November!
  6. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice

Latest News

  1. Navalny protests sharpen EU sanctions talks
  2. Why Russia politics threaten European security
  3. MEPs call for workers to have 'right to disconnect'
  4. Reality bites EU's 'No More Morias' pledge
  5. Ten years on from Tahrir: EU's massive missed opportunity
  6. Vaccine delay and Russia sanctions debates This WEEK
  7. Will EU ever take action to stop Israeli settlements?
  8. EU leaders keep open borders, despite new corona variant risk

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us